The Life of Elijah
by A.W. Pink
A Dark Providence
"Change and decay in all around I see." We live in a mutable world where nothing is stable, and where life is full of strange vicissitudes. We cannot, and we should not, expect things to go on smoothly for us for any length of time while we are sojourning in this land of sin and mortality. It would be contrary to the present constitution of our lot as fallen creatures, for "man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward"; neither would it be for our good if we were altogether exempted from affliction. Though we be the children of God, the objects of His special favour, yet this does not free us from the ordinary calamities of life. Sickness and death may enter our dwellings at any time: they may attack us personally or those who are nearest and dearest to us, and we are obliged to bow to the sovereign dispensations of Him who ruleth over all. These are commonplace remarks, we know, nevertheless they contain a truth of which—unpalatable though it be—we need constant reminding.
Though we are quite familiar with the fact mentioned above, and see it illustrated daily on every side, yet we are reluctant and slow to acknowledge its application to ourselves. Such is human nature: we wish to ignore the unpleasant, and persuade ourselves that if our present lot be a happy one it will remain so for some time to come. But no matter how healthy we be, how vigorous our constitution, how well provided for financially, we must not think that our mountain is so strong it cannot be moved (Ps. 30:6, 7). Rather must we train ourselves to hold temporal mercies with a light hand, and use the relations and comforts of this life as though we had them not, I Cor. 7.30, remembering that "the fashion of this world passeth away." Our rest is not here, and if we build our nest in any earthly tree it should be with the realization that sooner or later the whole forest will be cut down.
Like many a one both before and since, the widow of Zarephath might have been tempted to think that all her troubles were now over. She might reasonably expect a blessing from entertaining the servant of God in her home, and a real and liberal blessing she received. In consequence of sheltering him, she and her son were supplied by a Divine miracle in a time of famine for "many days"; and from this she might draw the conclusion that she had nothing further to fear. Yet the next thing recorded in our narrative is, "And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick; and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him" (1 Kings 17:17). The language in which this pathetic incident is couched seems to denote that her son was stricken suddenly, and so sorely that he expired quickly, before there was opportunity for Elijah to pray for his recovery.
How deeply mysterious are the ways of God! The strangeness of the incident now before us is the more evident if we link it with the verse immediately preceding: "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. And it came to pass after these things that the son of the woman . . . fell sick," etc. Both she and her son had been miraculously fed for a considerable interval of time, and now he is drastically cut off from the land of the living, reminding us of those words of Christ concerning the sequel to an earlier miracle: "Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness and are dead" (John 6:49). Even though the smile of the Lord be upon us and He is showing Himself strong on our behalf, this does not grant us an immunity from the afflictions to which flesh and blood is the heir. As long as we are left in this vale of tears we must seek grace to "rejoice with trembling" (Ps. 2:11).
On the other hand, this widow had most certainly erred if she concluded from the snatching away of her son that she had forfeited the favour of God and that this dark dispensation was a sure mark of His wrath. Is it not written, "For whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth" (Heb. 12:6)? Even when we have the clearest manifestations of God’s good will—as this woman had in the presence of Elijah under her roof and the daily miracle of sustenance—we must be prepared for the frowns of Providence. We ought not to be staggered if we meet with sharp afflictions while we are treading the path of duty. Did not Joseph do so again and again? Did not Daniel? Above all, did not the Redeemer Himself? —so too with His apostles. "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you" (1 Pet. 4:12).
Let it be duly noted that this poor soul had received particular marks of God’s favour before she was cast into the furnace of affliction. It often happens that God exercises His people with the heaviest trials when they have been the recipients of His richest blessing. Yet here the anointed eye may discern His tender mercies. Does that remark surprise you, dear reader? Do you ask, How so? Why, the Lord, in His infinite grace, often prepares His children for suffering by previously granting them great spiritual enjoyments: giving them unmistakable tokens of His kindness, filling their hearts with His love, and diffusing an indescribable peace over their minds. Having tasted experimentally of the Lord’s goodness, they are better fitted to meet adversity. Moreover, patience, hope, meekness and the other spiritual graces, can only be developed in the fire: the faith of this widow then, must needs be tried yet more severely.
The loss of her child was a heavy affliction for this poor woman. It would be so to any mother, but it was more especially severe on her, because she had previously been reduced to widowhood, and there would now be none left to support and comfort her declining years. In him all her affections were centered, and with his death all her hopes were destroyed: her coal was now indeed quenched (2 Sam. 14:7), for none remained to preserve the name of her husband on the earth. Nevertheless, as in the case of Lazarus and his sisters, this heavy blow was "for the glory of God" (John 11:4), and was to afford her a still more distinguishing mark of the Lord’s favour. Thus it was, too, with Joseph and Daniel to whom we have alluded above: Severe and painful were their trails, yet subsequently God conferred yet greater honour upon them. O for faith to lay hold of the "afterward" of Hebrews 12:11!
"And she said unto Elijah, What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? Art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?" (v. 18). Alas, what poor, failing sinful creatures we are! How wretchedly we requite God for His abundant mercies! When His chastening hand is laid upon us, how often we rebel instead of meekly submitting thereto. Instead of humbling ourselves beneath God’s mighty hand and begging Him to show wherefore He is contending with us (Job 10:2), we are far readier to blame some other person as being the cause of our trouble. Thus it was with this woman. Instead of entreating Elijah to pray with and for her—that God would enable her to understand wherein she had "erred" (Job 6:24), that He would be pleased to sanctify this affliction unto the good of her soul, and enable her to glorify Him "in the fires" (Isa. 24:15)—she reproached him. How sadly we fail to use our privileges.
"And she said unto Elijah, What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?" This is in striking contrast with the calmness she had displayed when Elijah first encountered her. The swift calamity which had befallen her had come as a sore surprise, and in such circumstances, when trouble overtakes us unexpectedly, it is hard to keep our spirits composed. Under sudden and severe trails much grace is needed if we are to be preserved from impatience, petulant outbursts, and to exercise unshaken confidence in and complete submission to God. Not all of the saints are enabled to say with Job, "shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? . . . the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 2:10; 1:21). But so far from such failure excusing us, we must judge ourselves unsparingly and contritely confess such sins unto God.
The poor widow was deeply distressed over her loss, and her language to Elijah is a strange mixture of faith and unbelief, pride and humility. It was the inconsistent outburst of an agitated mind as the disconnected and jerky nature of it intimates. First, she asks him, "What have I to do with thee?"—what have I done to displease thee? wherein have I injured thee? She wished that she had never set eyes on him if he was responsible for the death of her child. Yet second, she owns him as "thou man of God"—and who was separated unto the Divine service. She must have known by this time that the terrible drought had come upon Israel in answer to the prophet’s prayers, and she probably concluded her own affliction had come in a similar way. Third, she humbled herself, asking, "Art thou comes to me to call my sin to remembrance?—possibly a reference to her former worship of Baal.
It is often God’s way to employ afflictions in bringing former sins to our remembrance. In the ordinary routine of life it is so easy to go on from day to day without any deep exercise of conscience before the Lord, especially so when we are in the enjoyment of a replenished barrel. It is only as we are really walking closely with Him, or when we are smitten with some special chastisement of His hand that our conscience is sensitive before him. But when death entered her family the question of sin came up, for death is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). It is always the safest attitude for us to assume when we regard our losses as the voice of God speaking to our sinful hearts, and diligently to examine ourselves, repent of our iniquities, and duly confess them unto the Lord, that we may obtain His forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9).
It is at this very point that the difference between an unbeliever and a believer so often appears. When the former is visited with some sore trouble or loss, the pride and self-righteousness of his heart is quickly manifested by his, "I know not what I have done to deserve this: I always sought to do what is right; I am no worse than my neighbors who are spared such sorrow—why should I be made the subject of such a calamity?" But how different is it with a person truly humbled. He is distrustful of himself, aware of his many shortcomings, and ready to fear that he has displeased the Lord. Such a one will diligently consider his ways (Hag. 1:5), reviewing his former manner of life and carefully scrutinizing his present behavior, so as to discover what has been or still is amiss, that it may be set right. Only thus can the fears of our minds be relieved and the peace of God confirmed in our souls.
It is this calling to mind our manifold sins and judging ourselves for them which will make us meek and submissive, patient and resigned. It was thus with Aaron who, when the judgment of God fell so heavily upon his family, "held his peace" (Lev. 10:3). It was thus with poor old Eli who had failed to admonish and discipline his sons, for when they were summarily slain, he exclaimed, "it is the Lord: let Him do what seemeth Him good" (1 Sam. 3:18). The loss of a child may sometimes remind parents of sins committed with respect to it long previously. So it was with David when he lost his child by the hand of God smiting it for his wickedness (2 Sam. 12). No matter how heavy the loss, how deep his grief, when in his right mind the language of the saint will ever be, "I know, O Lord, that Thy judgments are right, and that Thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me" (Ps. 119:75).
Though the widow and her son had been kept alive for many days, miraculously sustained by the power of God, whilst the rest of the people had suffered, yet she was less impressed by the Divine beneficence than by His taking away her child: "What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? Art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?" While she seems to acknowledge God in the death of her son, she cannot shake off the thought that the prophet’s presence was responsible for it. She attributes her loss to Elijah: as though he had been commissioned to go to her for the purpose of inflicting punishment upon her for her sin. As he had been sent to Ahab to denounce the drought upon Israel for their sin, so now she was afraid of his presence, alarmed at the very sight of him. Alas, how ready we are to mistake the grounds of our afflictions and ascribe them to false causes.
"And he said unto her, Give my thy son" (v. 19). In the opening paragraph of our last chapter we pointed out how the second half of 1 Kings 17 presents to us a picture of the domestic life of Elijah, his deportment in the widow’s home at Zarephath. First, he evidenced his contentment with the humble fare, expressing no dissatisfaction with the unvarying menu day after day. And here we behold how he conducted himself under great provocation. The petulant outburst of this agitated woman was a cruel a one to make unto the very man who had brought deliverance to her house. Her "Art thou come to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?" was uncalled for and unjust, and might well have prompted a bitter reply. It had undoubtedly done so had not the subduing grace of God been working with him, for Elijah was naturally of a warm temper.
The wrong construction which the widow placed upon Elijah’s presence in her home was enough to shake any person. Blessed is it to observe there was no angry reply made to her inconsiderate judgment, but instead a "soft answer" to turn away her wrath. If one speaks to us unadvisedly with his lips that is no reason why we should descend to his level. The prophet took no notice of her passionate inquiry and thereby evidenced that he was a follower of Him who is "meek and lowly in heart," of whom we read "Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again" (1 Pet. 2:23). "Elijah saw that she was in extreme distress and that she spoke as one in great anguish of spirit; and therefore, taking no notice of her words, he calmly said to her "Give me thy son"; leading her at the same time to expect the restoration of her child through his intercession" (J. Simpson).
It may be thought that the last words cited above are entirely speculative: personally we believe that they are fully warranted by Scripture. In Hebrews 11:35 we read, "Women received their dead raised to life again." It will be remembered that this statement is found in the great faith chapter, where the Spirit has set forth some of the wondrous achievements and exploits of those who trust the living God. One individual case after another is mentioned, and then there is a grouping together and generalizing: "who through faith subdued kingdoms . . . women received their dead raised to life again." There can be no room for doubt that the reference here is to the case now before us and the companion one in that of the Shunammite (2 Kings 4:17-37). Here, then, is where the New Testament again throws its light upon the earlier Scriptures, enabling us to obtain a more complete conception of that which we are now considering.
The widow of Zarephath, though a Gentile, was a daughter of Sarah, to whom had been committed the faith of God’s elect. Such a faith is a supernatural one, its author and object being supernatural. When this faith was first born within her we are not told—very likely while Elijah was sojourning in her home, for "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). The supernatural character of her faith was evidenced by its supernatural fruits, for it was in response to her faith (as well as to Elijah’s intercession) that her child was restored to her. What is the more remarkable is that, so far as the Word informs us, there has been no previous case of the dead being brought back again to life. Nevertheless, He who had caused a handful of meal to waste not and a little oil in a cruse to fail not while it sustained three people for "many days," surely He also could quicken the dead. Thus does faith reason: nothing is impossible to the Almighty.
It may be objected that there is no hint in the historical narrative of the widow’s faith as to the restoring of her son to life, but rather a hint to the contrary. True, yet this in no wise makes against what has been pointed out above. Nothing is said in Genesis about Sarah’s faith to conceive seed, but instead her skepticism is mentioned. What is there in Exodus to suggest that the parents of Moses were exercising faith in God when they placed their son in the ark of bulrushes?—yet see Hebrews 11:23. One would be hard put to it to find anything in the book of Judges which suggests that Samson was a man of faith, yet it is clear from Hebrews 11:32 that he was. But if nothing is said in the Old Testament of her faith, we may also note that the unkind words of the widow to Elijah are not recorded in the New Testament—any more than the unbelief of Sarah or the impatience of Job—because they are blotted out by the blood of the Lamb.