The Life of Elijah (Part 2 of 5)
A.W. Pink (1886–1952)
Copyright: Public Domain
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A.W. Pink originally wrote and published this as a series of articles in his monthly magazine, Studies in the Scriptures, from January, 1940 through December, 1942.
“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 it is the measure in which we prayerfully meditate upon that which is immediately before us. That largely determines the degree of benefit the soul receives therefrom. By passing too quickly from one verse to another, by failing to vividly picture 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. We discussed at length the Prophet’s arriving 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 retrace 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 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 devising. 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).
But let it be duly noted 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 and either provide for his wants or 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 words 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, “They sit before thee as My people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they show 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” (Ezek. 33:31, 32). 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” (1 Kings 17:8, 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 his 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 a hundred 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 public address) as being one of the earliest intimations of the favours 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 succored 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 that “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 good old 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 this 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” (1 Kings 17:9). 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 being concerned 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). As quickly as 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 those 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” (1 Kings 17:4). 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 turns them wheresoever He pleases. He can incline them to show us favour and do us acts of kindness even though we be strangers to them. Many times, in widely different parts of the world, has this been the experience of this 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 succor from those who had very little of this world’s goods, but we were comforted by that word, “And certain women who 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” (1 Kings 17:10). 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 thyself 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 and one of wide application. By it each of us who preach the Gospel should diligently measure himself. You that preach that God requires Truth in the inwards parts, are you a man of your word? You that teach we should provide things honest in the sight of all men, have you any unpaid debts? You that exhort believers to be importunate in prayer, spend you much time in the secret place? If not, be not surprised if your 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 very suggestive. Because Moab had long been at peace she had become lethargic and flabby. Or, like grape juice unrefined, she had been spoilt. 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 told. 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 succor 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.
“And the word 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 sevenfold “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 it was with Elijah, for God has given the same rule unto His ministers as they 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 where 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 health 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, 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 have pointed out, the correlative of “service” is obedience. The two things are permanently 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: 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” (Psa. 19:11), for the Lord will be no man’s debtor; nevertheless it calls for the setting aside of carnal reason, and that is no easy matter to flesh and blood. Witness the path of Elijah: called to take his place by Cherith and there be fed by ravens—how could a proud intellect understand that? And now bidden to journey to a far distant and heathen city, there to be sustained by a desolate widow, that 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 does 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” (1 Kings 17:10). 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 were 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” (Psa. 37:3). “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be removed” (Psa. 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, where she lived, 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 identity of the 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 know 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” (Psa. 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 forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36). Cultivate the holy habit of seeing the hand of God in everything that happens to us.
“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” would answer, “drink, and I will give thy camels drink also” (Gen. 24:14). 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 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 demeanour 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, “I pray thee.” What a rebuke does that contain for those who are proud and officious. Civility is due to everyone: “be courteous” (1 Peter 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” (1 Kings 17:11). 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 would human nature resent such a demand to draw 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 (Matt. 15:22-28). 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” (1 Kings 17:12). 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 12 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 under the circumstances. As yet she knew nothing of that word to Elijah, “Behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee” (1 Kings 17:9). 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 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” (1 Kings 17:12). 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 (Psa. 68:20). She was not yet able to “against hope 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 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.
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 Abram 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 nowise 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 thee 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 use 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!
In that which is now to be before us we are to behold how the Prophet conducted himself in quite different surroundings and circumstances from those which have previously engaged our attention. Hitherto we have seen something of how he acquitted himself in public: his courage and spiritual dignity before Ahab; and also how he acted in private—his life in secret before God by the brook: obedient unto the word of the Lord, patiently waiting His next marching orders. But here the Spirit grants us a view of how Elijah conducted himself in the home of the widow at Zarephath, revealing as it does most blessedly the sufficiency of Divine grace for God’s servants and people in every situation in which they may find themselves. Alas, how often the servant of God who is uncompromising in public and faithful in his secret devotions, fails lamentably in the domestic sphere, the family circle. This should not be; nor was it so with Elijah, by God’s grace.
That to which we have just alluded calls perhaps for a few remarks, which we offer not by way of extenuation but of explanation. Why is it that the servant of God is often seen too far less advantage in the home than he is in the pulpit or the closet? In the first place, as he goes forth to discharge his public duties he is keyed up to do battle against the Enemy; but he returns home with his nervous energy spent, to relax and recuperate. Then it is that he is more easily upset and irritated by comparative trifles. In the second place, in his public ministry he is conscious that he is opposing the powers of evil, but in the family circle he is surrounded by those who love him, and is more off his guard, failing to realize that Satan may use his friends to gain an advantage over him. Third, conscious faithfulness in public may have stimulated his pride, and a thorn in the flesh—the painful realization of sad failure in the home—may be necessary to humble him. Yet there is no more justification for God-dishonouring conduct in the domestic circle than in the pulpit.
We have seen where Elijah—in response to Jehovah’s orders—had left his retirement at Cherith, had crossed the desert and had duly arrived at the gates of Zarephath, where the Lord had (secretly) commanded a widow woman to sustain him. He encountered her at the entrance of the town, though under circumstances which presented a most unpromising appearance to carnal sight. Instead of this woman joyfully welcoming the Prophet, she dolefully spoke of the impending death of herself and son. Instead of being amply furnished to minister unto Elijah, she tells him that “a handful of meal and a little oil in a cruse” was all she had left. What a testing of faith! How unreasonable it seemed that the man of God should expect sustenance under her roof. No more unreasonable than that Noah should be required to build an ark before there was any rain, still less any signs of a flood: no more unreasonable than that Israel should be required to simply walk round and round the walls of Jericho. The path of obedience can only be trodden as faith is in exercise.
“And Elijah said, Fear not: go and do as thou hast said” (1 Kings 17:13). What a gracious word was this to quieten the poor widow’s heart! Be not afraid of the consequences, either to yourself or to your son, in making use of the means to hand, scant though they be. “But make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son” (v. 13). What a severe testing was this! Was ever a poor widow so sorely tried, before or since? To make him a cake “first” was surely, in her extreme circumstances, one of the hardest commands ever given. Did it not appear to issue from the very essence of selfishness? Did either the laws of God or of man require a sacrifice like this? God has never bidden us do more than love our neighbour as ourself, nowhere has He bidden us to love him better. But here “make me a cake first”!
“For thus saith the LORD God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the LORD sendeth rain upon the earth” (v. 14). Ah, that made all the difference: that removed the sting from the request, showing there was no selfishness inspiring the same. She was asked for a portion of that little which she had remaining, but Elijah tells her she need not hesitate to bestow it, for although the case seemed desperate, God would take care of her and of her son. Observe with what implicit confidence the Prophet spoke: there was no uncertainty, but positive and unwavering assurance that their supply should not diminish. Ah, Elijah had learned a valuable lesson at Cherith—learned it experimentally: he had proved the faithfulness of Jehovah by the brook, and therefore was he now qualified to quieten the fears and comfort the heart of this poor widow—compare 2 Corinthians 1:3, 4 which reveals the secret of all effective ministry.
Observe the particular title here accorded Deity. The woman had said, “As the LORD thy God liveth” (1 Kings 7:12), but this was not sufficient. Elijah declared, “Thus saith the LORD God of Israel”: this Gentile must be made to realize the humbling truth that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). “The LORD God of Israel”: of whose wondrous works you must have heard so much. The One who made a footstool of the haughty Pharaoh, who brought His people through the Red Sea dry-shod, who miraculously sustained them for 40 years in the wilderness, and who subdued the Canaanites for them. Such a One may surely be trusted for our daily bread. The “LORD God of Israel” is He whose promise never fails, for “the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for He is not a man that He should repent” or change His mind (1 Sam. 15:29). Such a One may be safely relied upon.
“For thus saith the LORD God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth” (1 Kings 17:14). God gave her His word of promise to rest upon: could she rely upon it? Would she really trust Him? Note how definite was the promise: it was not merely, God will not suffer thee to starve, or will surely supply all your need; rather was it as though the Prophet had said, The meal in thy barrel shall not diminish nor the oil in thy cruse dry up. And if our faith be a Divinely-sustained one it will cause us to trust in God’s promise to commit ourselves unreservedly to His care, and to do good unto our fellow creatures. But observe how faith must continue in exercise: no new barrel of meal was promised or furnished: just an undiminished “handful”—seemingly a very inadequate quantity for the family, but quite sufficient with God. “Until the day that the LORD sendeth rain upon the earth” evidenced the firm faith of the Prophet himself.
“And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she and he and her house did eat many days” (v. 15). Who can forebear exclaiming, O woman great is thy faith! She might have advanced many excuses to the Prophet’s request, especially as he was a stranger to her, but great as the test was, her faith in the Lord was equal to it. Her simple trust that God would take care of them overcame all the objections of carnal reason. Does she not remind us of another Gentile woman, the Syro-Phoenician, a descendant of the idolatrous Canaanites, who long afterwards welcomed the appearance of Christ to the borders of Tyre, and who sought His aid on behalf of her demon distressed daughter? With astonishing faith she overcame every obstacle, and obtained a portion of the children’s bread in the healing of her daughter (Matt. 15:28). Would that such cases moved us to cry from our hearts, “Lord, increase our faith,” for none but He who bestows faith can increase it.
“And she and her house did eat many days. And 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” (1 Kings 17:15, 16). She was no loser by her generosity. Her little supply of meal and oil was but sufficient for a single meal and then she and her son must die. But her willingness to minister unto God’s servant brought her enough, not only for many days, but for several years. She gave Elijah of the best of what she had and for her kindness to him God kept her household clear through the famine. How true it is that, “He that receiveth a Prophet in the name of a Prophet shall receive a Prophet’s reward” (Matt. 10:41). But all of God’s people are not granted the privilege of succouring a Prophet, yet they may God’s poor. Is it not written, “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the LORD; and that which he hath given will He pay him again” (Prov. 19:17)? And again, “Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble” (Psa. 41:1). God will be no man’s Debtor.
“And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she and her house did eat many days. And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail.” Here again we have exemplified the fact that the receiving of God’s blessing and obtaining of food (in figure, spiritual food) is the result of obedience. This woman complied with the request of God’s servant and great was her reward. Are you, my reader, fearful of the future? Are you afraid that when strength fails and old age comes you may be left without the necessities of life? Then suffer us to remind you that there is no need whatever for such fears. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things (temporal necessities) shall be added unto you” (Matt. 6:33). “O fear the LORD, ye His saints: for there is no want to them that fear Him” (Psa. 34:9). “No good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly” (Psa. 84:11). But note well that each of these promises is conditional: your business is to give God the first place in your life, to fear, obey and honour Him in all things, and in return He guarantees your bread and water shall be sure.
Is there a reader inclined to reply, Such wholesome counsel is easier to receive than to act on, to be reminded of God’s promises than to rely upon the same. Someone may be disposed to say, Ah, you know not how distressing are my circumstances, how dark the outlook, how sorely Satan is injecting doubts into my mind. True, yet however desperate your case may be, we would earnestly beg you to think upon the widow of Zarephath: it is most unlikely that your situation is anything like as extreme as hers, yet she perished not of starvation. He who puts God first will always find Him with him at the last. Things which seem to be acting against us, work together for our good in His wondrous hands. Whatever be your need, dear friend, forget not Elijah’s God.
“And she and he and her house did eat many days.” Here we see Elijah dwelling safely in the humble abode of this poor widow. Though the fare was frugal, yet it was sufficient to preserve life in the body. There is no hint that God provided any variation of diet during those “many days,” nor any intimation that the Prophet became dissatisfied with being required to eat the same food over so long a period. This is where we obtain our first glimpse of how he conducted himself within the family circle. Blessedly did he exemplify that Divine precept, “Having food and raiment, let us be therewith content” (1 Tim. 6:8). And from where does such contentment proceed? From a submissive and peaceful heart which rests in God: subject to His sovereign pleasure, satisfied with the portion He is pleased to allot us, seeing His hand both in providing and in withholding.
“And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail.” Certainly the widow had no cause to complain of the severe testing to which her faith had been put. God, who sent His Prophet to board with her, paid well for his table—by providing her family with food while her neighbours were starving, and by granting her the company and instruction of His servant. Who can tell what blessing came to her soul under the edifying conversation of Elijah and from the efficacy of his prayers? She was of a humane and generous disposition, ready to relieve the misery of others and minister to the needs of God’s servants; and her liberality was returned to her a hundredfold. Unto the merciful, God shows mercy, “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love which ye have showed toward His name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister” (Heb. 6:10).
“And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail.” Let us now endeavour to look higher, lest we miss the lovely type which is to be found here. The “meal” is certainly a Divinely-selected figure of Christ, the “corn of wheat” that died (John 12:24), being ground between the upper and nether millstones of Divine judgment that He might be unto us the “Bread of life.” This is clear from the first few chapters of Leviticus, where we have the five great offerings appointed for Israel, which set forth the Person and work of the Redeemer; the Meal offering of “fine flour” (Lev. 2) portraying the perfections of His humanity. It is equally clear that the “oil” is an emblem of the Holy Spirit in His anointing, enlightening and sustaining operations. It is a most blessed line of study to trace through the Scriptures the typical references of the “oil.”
As the little family at Zarephath were not sustained by meal or oil alone, but the two in conjunction, so the believer is not sustained spiritually without both Christ and the Holy Spirit. We could not feed upon Christ, yea, we would never feel our need of so doing, were it not for the gracious influences of the Spirit of God. The One is as indispensable to us as the Other: Christ for us, the Spirit in us; the One maintaining our cause on high, the Other ministering to us down here. The Spirit is here to “testify” of Christ (John 15:26), yea, to “glorify” Him (John 16:14), and therefore did the Saviour add, “He shall receive of Mine and show it unto you” —is not this why the “meal” (three times over) is mentioned first in the type? Nor is this the only passage where we see the two types combined: again and again in the beautiful prefiguration of the Old Testament we read of the “oil” being placed upon the blood (Exo. 29:21; Lev. 14:14; etc.).
“And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail.” There was a steady increase and supply of both according to the mighty power of God working a continuous miracle: is there not a close parallel between this and the Saviour’s supernatural increasing of the five barley loaves and the two small fishes, while the disciples were distributing and the multitude eating (Matt. 14:19, 20)? But again we would look from the type to the Antitype. The meal continued undiminished, the supply unabated, and the meal pointed to Christ as the Nourisher of our souls. The provision which God has made for His people in the Lord Jesus remains the same throughout the centuries: we may come to Him again and again and though we receive from Him “grace for grace” yet His “fullness” (John 1:16) continues the same “yesterday and today and forever.” “Neither did the cruse of oil fail” foreshadowed the grand truth that the Holy Spirit is with us to the very end of our pilgrimage (Eph. 4:30).
But let us point out again that God did not give a new barrel of meal and cruse of oil unto this family at Zarephath, nor did He fill to the brim the old one. There is another important lesson for us in this. God gave them sufficient food for their daily use, but not a whole year’s supply in advance or even a week’s provision all at once. In like manner, there is no such thing as our laying up for ourselves a stock of grace for future use. We have to go constantly to Christ for fresh supplies of grace. The Israelites were expressly forbidden to hoard up the manna: they had to go out and gather it anew each morning. We cannot procure sufficient sustenance for our souls on the Sabbath to last us throughout the week, but must feed on God’s Word each morning. So, too, though we have been regenerated by the Spirit once and for all, yet He renews us in the inner man “day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).
“According to the word of the LORD, which He spake by Elijah” (1 Kings 17:16). This was illustrative and demonstrative of a vital principle: no word of His shall fall to the ground, but all things “which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His holy Prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21) —shall surely be accomplished. This is both solemn and blessed. Solemn, because the threatenings of Holy Writ are not idle ones, but the faithful warnings of Him that cannot lie. Just as surely as Elijah’s declaration, “there shall be no dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1) was fulfilled to the letter, so will the Most High make good every judgment He has announced against the wicked. Blessed, because as truly as the widow’s meal and oil failed not according to His word through Elijah, so shall every promise made to His saints yet receive its perfect accomplishment. The unimpeachable veracity, unchanging faithfulness, and all-mighty power of God to make good His Word is the impregnable foundation on which faith may securely rest.
“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 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 are 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 rules over all. These are commonplace remarks, we know—nevertheless they contain a truth of which, unpalatable though it is, we need constantly reminding.
Though we are quite familiar with the fact mentioned above, and see it illustrated daily on every side, yet we are very 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 is a happy one it will remain so for some time to come. But no matter how healthy we are, how vigorous our constitution, how well provided for financially, we must not think that our mountain is so strong it cannot be moved (Psa. 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 (1 Cor. 7:30), remembering that “the fashion of this world passes 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 at 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 very 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 very 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 this 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 is 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” (Psa. 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 Peter 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 blessings. 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 very 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 trials, yet subsequently God conferred 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?” (1 Kings 17:18). 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 from the calmness she had displayed when Elijah first encountered her. The swift calamity which had befallen her had come as a sore surprise, and under such circumstances when trouble overtakes us unexpectedly it is hard to keep our spirits composed. Under sudden and severe trials 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 were responsible for the death of her child. Yet, second, she owns him as “thou man of God” —one 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, saying “Art thou come 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. And 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 to diligently 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 neighbours 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 behaviour, so as to discover what has been or still is amiss, that it may be set right. Only thus can the fears of our mind 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” (Psa. 119:75).
Though the widow and her son had been kept alive for many days, miraculously sustained by the power of God, while 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 me thy son” (1 Kings 17:19). We have already pointed out how that 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 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 within him, for Elijah was naturally of a very 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 their lips that is no reason why we should descend to their 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 Peter 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 it grouping together and generalizing: “who through faith subdued kingdoms, etc., etc. —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 had 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 could also 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 that to the contrary. True, yet this in nowise 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.
We are now to consider one of the most remarkable incidents recorded in the Old Testament, namely, the restoring to life of the widow’s son at Zarephath. It is an incident staggering to unbelief, yet he who has any experimental acquaintance with the Lord finds no difficulty therein. When Paul was making his defense before Agrippa, the Apostle asked him, “Why should it be thought a thing incredible (not simply that a deceased person should be restored to life, but) that God should raise the dead?” (Acts 26:8). Ah, there is where the believer throws all the emphasis: upon the absolute sufficiency of the One with whom he has to do. Bring into the scene the living God, and no matter how drastic and desperate be the situation, all difficulties at once disappear, for nothing is impossible to Him. He who first implanted life, He who now holds our souls in life, (Psa. 66:9), can revivify the dead.
The modern infidel (like the Sadducees of old) may scoff at the Divinely revealed truth of resurrection, but not so the Christian. And why? Because he has experienced in his own soul the quickening power of God: he has been brought from death unto life spiritually. Even though Satan should inject vile doubts into his mind, and for awhile shake his confidence in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, yet he will soon recover his poise: he knows the blessedness of that grand verity, and when grace has again delivered him from the power of darkness, he will joyfully exclaim with the Apostle, “Christ liveth in me.” Moreover, when he was born again, a supernatural principle was planted within his heart—the principle of faith—and that principle causes him to receive the Holy Scriptures with full assurance that they are indeed the Word of Him that cannot lie, and therefore does he believe all that the Prophets have spoken.
Here is the reason why that which staggers and stumbles the wise of this world is plain and simple to the Christian. The preservation of Noah and his family in the ark, Israel’s passing through the Red Sea dry-shod, the survival of Jonah in the whale’s belly, present no difficulty to him at all. He knows that the Word of God is inerrant, for the truth thereof has been verified in his own experience. Having proved for himself that the Gospel of Christ is “the power of God unto salvation,” he has no reason to doubt anything recorded in Holy Writ concerning the prodigies of His might in the material realm. The believer is fully assured that nothing is too hard for the Maker of Heaven and earth. It is not that he is an intellectual simpleton, credulously accepting what is altogether contrary to reason, but that in the Christian, reason is restored to its normal functioning: predicate a God who is almighty, and the supernatural workings of His hand necessarily follows.
The entire subject of miracles is hereby reduced to its simplest factor. A great deal of learned jargon has been written on this theme: the laws of nature, their suspension, God’s acting contrary thereto, and as to the precise nature of a miracle. Personally we would define a miracle as something which none but God Himself can perform. In so doing we are not underestimating the powers possessed by Satan, or overlooking such passages as Revelation 16:14 and 19:20. It is sufficient for the writer that Holy Writ affirms the Lord to be “Him who alone doeth great wonders” (Psa. 136:4). As for the “great signs and wonders” shown by false Christs and false Prophets, their nature and design is to “deceive” (Matt. 24:24), for they are “lying wonders” (2 Thess. 2:9), just as their predictions are false ones. Here we rest: God alone does great wonders, and being GOD this is just what faith expects from Him.
We have been recently occupied with the sore affliction which came upon the Zarephath widow in the sudden death of her son, and the immediate effect which it had upon her. Stirred to the depths, she turned to Elijah and accused him of being the occasion of her heavy loss. The Prophet made no harsh reply to the unkind and unjust charge, but instead, quietly said, “Give me thy son.” Observe that he did not autocratically lay hands upon the corpse, but courteously requested that the body should be turned over to him. We believe that Elijah’s design therein was to still her passion and cause her to “against hope believe in hope” (Rom. 4:18) as long before Abraham had done, when he “believed God who quickeneth the dead,” for it was (in part) in response to her faith that she “received her dead restored to life again” (Heb. 11:35).
“And he took him out of her bosom, and carried him up into a loft where he abode, and laid him upon his own bed” (1 Kings 17:19). This was evidently an upper room reserved for the Prophet’s personal use, as Elisha had his in another place (2 Kings 4:10). There he now retired for privacy, as Peter to the house-top and Christ into the garden. The Prophet himself must have been quite oppressed and disconcerted by the sad event which had overtaken his hostess. Stern as Elijah might be in the discharge of duty, yet he possessed a tender spirit underneath (as such stern men generally do), full of benignity and sensitive to the misery of others. It is quite evident from the sequel Elijah grieved that one who had been so kind to him should be so heavily afflicted since he had come to her hospitable abode, and it would add to his distress that she should think he was responsible for her loss.
It must not be lost sight of that this dark dispensation occasioned a very real testing of Elijah’s faith. Jehovah is the God of the widow and the Rewarder of those who befriend His people, especially of those who show kindness to His servants. Why, then, should such evil now come upon the one who was affording him shelter? Had he not come by the Lord’s own appointment as a messenger of mercy to her house? True, he had proved himself to be such: but this was forgotten by her under the stress of the present trial, for he is now regarded as the emissary of wrath, an avenger of her sin, the slayer of her only child. Worst of all, would he not feel that the honour of his Master was also involved? That the name of the Lord would be scandalized? Might the widow not ask, Is this how God repays those who befriend His servants?
Blessed is it to observe how Elijah reacted to this trial. When the widow asked if the death of her son was due to his presence, he indulged in no carnal speculations, making no attempt to solve the deep mystery which now confronted himself as well as her. Instead, he retires to his chamber that he may get alone with God and spread his perplexity before Him. This is ever the course we should follow, for not only is the Lord “a very present help in trouble” but His Word requires that we should seek unto Him first (Matt. 6:33). “My soul, wait thou only upon God,” applies with double force in times of perplexity and distress. Vain is the help of man; worthless are carnal conjectures. In the hour of His acutest trial the Saviour Himself withdrew from His own disciples and poured out His heart unto the Father in secret. The widow was not allowed to witness the deepest exercises of the Prophet’s soul before his Master.
“And he cried unto the LORD” (1 Kings 17:20). As yet Elijah apprehended not the meaning of this mystery, but he well understood what to do in his difficulty. He betook himself unto his God and spread his complaint before Him. He sought relief with great earnestness and importunity, humbly reasoning with Him regarding the death of the child. But note well his reverent language: he did not ask, Why hast Thou inflicted this dismal dispensation upon us? But instead, “O LORD, my God, hast Thou also brought evil upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?” (v. 20). The why of it was none of his business. It is not for us to call into question the ways of the Most High nor to curiously inquire into His secret counsels. Sufficient for us to know that the Lord makes no mistakes, that He has a good and sufficient reason for all He does, and therefore should we meekly submit to His sovereign pleasure. Man’s “why doth He” and “why hast Thou”? is designated a “replying against God” (Rom. 9:19, 20).
In Elijah’s address unto God we may note, first, how that he fell back upon the special relation which He sustained to him: “O LORD, my God” he cried. This was a pleading of his personal interest in God, for these words are always expressive of Covenant relationship. To be able to say “O LORD, my God” is worth more than gold or rubies. Second, he traced the calamity back to its original source: “hast Thou also brought evil upon the widow?” (v. 20) —he saw death striking by Divine commission: “shall there be evil in a city and the LORD hath not done it!” (Amos 3:6). What a comfort when we are enabled to realize that no evil can befall God’s children but such as He brings upon them. Third, he pleaded the severity of the affliction: this evil has come upon, not simply the woman nor even the mother, but “the widow” whom Thou dost specially succour. Moreover, she it is “with whom I sojourn”: my kind benefactor.
“And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the LORD” (v. 21). Was this proof of the Prophet’s humility? How remarkable that so great a man should spend so much time and thought on that slender form, and bring himself into immediate contact with that which was ceremonially defiled! Was this act indicative of his own affection for the child, and to show how deeply he was stirred by his death? Was it a token of the fervency of his appeal unto God, as though he would if he could put life into his body from the life and warmth of his own? Does not his doing this three times over so intimate? Was it a sign of what God would do by His power and accomplish by His grace in the bringing of sinners from death unto life; the Holy Spirit overshadowing them and imparting His own life to them? If so, is there not more than a hint here that those whom He employs as instruments in conversion must themselves become as little children, bringing themselves to the level of those to whom they minister, and not standing on a pedestal as though they were superior beings?
“Cried unto the Lord and said, O LORD, my God, I pray Thee, let this child’s soul come into him again” (v. 21). What a proof is this that Elijah was accustomed to expect wondrous blessings from God in response to his supplications, accounting that nothing was too hard for Him to do, nothing too great for Him to bestow in answer to prayer. Undoubtedly this petition was prompted by the Holy Spirit, yet it was a marvelous effect of the Prophet’s faith to anticipate the restoration of the child to life, for there is no record in Scripture that anyone had been raised from the dead before this time. And remember, Christian reader, that this is recorded for our instruction and encouragement: the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. At the Throne of Grace we approach unto a great King, so let us large petitions bring. The more faith counts upon the infinite power and sufficiency of the Lord, the more is He honoured.
“And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah, and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived” (v. 22). What a proof was this that the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and “His ears are open unto their prayers” (1 Peter 3:12). What a demonstration of the potency and efficacy of prayer! Ours is a prayer-hearing and a prayer-answering God: to Him therefore let us have recourse whatever be our distress. Hopeless as our case may be to all human help, yet nothing is too hard for the Lord. He is able to do far more exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. But let us “ask in faith, nothing wavering: for he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall obtain anything of the Lord” (James 1:6, 7). “This is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He heareth us” (1 John 5:14). Surely we have need, all of us, to cry more earnestly, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Unless this be one of the effects produced by pondering the incident now before us, our study of the same has availed us little.
But it is not sufficient for us to cry, “Lord, teach us to pray”: we must also carefully ponder those portions of His Word which chronicle cases of prevailing intercession, that we may learn the secrets of successful prayer. In this instance we may note the following points. First, Elijah’s retiring to his own private chamber, that he might be alone with God. Second, his fervency: he “cried unto the Lord”—no mere lip-service was this. Third, his reliance upon his own personal interest in the Lord, avowing his covenant relationship: “O Lord, my God.” Fourth, his encouraging himself in God’s attributes: here, the Divine sovereignty and supremacy— “hast Thou also brought evil upon the widow.” Fifth, his earnestness and importunity: evidenced by his “stretching himself upon the child” no less than three times. Sixth, his appeal to God’s tender mercy: “the widow, with whom I sojourn.” Finally, the definiteness of his petition: “let this child’s soul come into him again.”
“And the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived” (1 Kings 17:22). These words are important for clearly establishing the very definite distinction which there is between the soul and the body, a distinction as real as that which exists between the house and its inhabitant. Scripture tells us that in the day of his creation, the Lord God first formed man’s body out of “the dust of the ground,” and second, that He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life,” and only then did he become “a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). The language employed on this occasion affords clear proof that the soul is distinct from the body, that it does not die with the body, that it exists in a separate state after the death of the body, and that none but God can restore it to its original habitat (compare Luke 8:55). Incidentally we may observe that this request of Elijah’s and the Lord’s response make it quite clear that the child was actually dead.
Relatively speaking, though in a very real sense nevertheless, the age of miracles has ceased, so that we cannot expect to have our dead supernaturally restored to us in this life. Yet the Christian may and ought to look forward with certain assurance that he shall meet again those beloved relatives and friends who departed hence in Christ. Their spirits are not dead, nor even sleeping as some erroneously assert, but have returned to God who gave them (Eccl. 12:7) and are now in a state that is “far better” (Phil. 1:23), which could not be were they deprived of all conscious communion with their Beloved. Their souls are not in “purgatory” as sordid priests have pretended for filthy lucre’s sake, but, being absent from the body, they are “present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), and in His presence is “fullness of joy” (Psa. 16:11). As to their bodies they await that great Day when they shall be fashioned like unto Christ’s glorious body.
“And Elijah took the child and brought him down out of the chamber into the house, and delivered him unto his mother: and Elijah said, See, thy son liveth” (1 Kings 17:23). What joy must have filled the Prophet’s heart as he witnessed the miraculous answer to his intercession! What fervent ejaculations of praise must have issued from his lips unto God for this additional manifestation of His goodness in delivering him from his grief. But it was no time for delay: the sorrow and suspense of the poor widow must now be allayed. Elijah, therefore promptly took the child downstairs and gave him to his mother. Who can imagine her delight as she saw her child restored to life again? How the Prophet’s procedure on this occasion reminds us of our Lord’s action following upon the miracle of restoring to life the only son of the widow of Nain, for no sooner did he sit up and speak than we are told that the Saviour “delivered him to his mother” (Luke 7:15)!
“And the woman said to Elijah, Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, that the Word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24). Very blessed is this. Instead of giving vent to her natural emotions she appears to have been entirely absorbed with the power of God which rested upon His servant, which now firmly established her conviction of his Divine mission and assurance in the truth which he proclaimed. Full demonstration had been given her that Elijah was indeed a Prophet of the Lord and that his witness was true. It must not be forgotten that in verse 14 he had first presented himself to her as a “man of God” (note her words in v. 18), and therefore it was essential he should establish his claim to that character. And this was done by the restoration of her child to life. Ah, my reader, we avow ourselves to be the children of the living God, but how are we making good our profession? There is only one conclusive way of so doing, and that is by walking in “newness of life,” evidencing that we are new creatures in Christ.
That which has been before us supplies yet another feature of Elijah’s domestic life. In considering how he conducted himself in the widow’s home, we noted first his contentment, murmuring not at the humble fare which was placed before him. Second, his gentleness, in refusing to reply to her unkind words with an angry retort. And now we behold the blessed effect upon his hostess of the miracle wrought in answer to his prayers. Her confession, “by this I know thou art a man of God,” was a personal testimony to the reality and power of a holy life. O to live in the energy of the Holy Spirit so that those who come into contact with us may perceive the power of God working in and through us! Thus did the Lord override the widow’s grief unto her spiritual good, by establishing her faith in the veracity of His word.
Unto one filled with such zeal for the Lord and love for His people the prolonged inactivity to which he was forced to submit must have proved severe trial unto Elijah. So energetic and courageous a Prophet would naturally be anxious to take advantage of the present distress of his countrymen: he would desire to awaken them to a sense of their grievous sins and urge them to return unto the Lord. Instead—so different are God’s ways from ours—he was required to remain in complete seclusion month after month and year after year. Nevertheless, his Master had a wise and gracious design in this trying discipline of His servant. Throughout his long stay by the brook Cherith Elijah proved the faithfulness and sufficiency of the Lord, and he gained not a little from his protracted sojourn at Zarephath. As the Apostle reveals both in 2 Corinthians 6:4 and 12:12, the first mark of an approved servant of Christ is the grace of spiritual “patience,” and this is developed by the trials of faith (James 1:3).
The years spent by Elijah at Zarephath were far from being wasted, for during his stay in the widow’s home he obtained confirmation of his Divine call, by the remarkable seal which was there given to his ministry. Thereby he approved himself to the conscience of his hostess: “Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, that the Word of the LORD in thy mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24). It was highly important that the Prophet should have such a testimony to the Divine source of his mission before entering upon the more difficult and dangerous part of it which yet lay before him. His own heart was blessedly confirmed and he was enabled to start afresh upon his public career with the assurance that he was a servant of Jehovah and that the Word of the Lord was indeed in his mouth. Such a seal to his ministry (the quickening of the dead child) and the approving of himself in the conscience of the mother was a grand encouragement for him as he set out to face the great crisis and conflict at Carmel.
What a message is there here for any ardent ministers of Christ whom Providence may for a season have laid by from public service. They are so desirous of doing good and promoting the glory of their Master in the salvation of sinners and the building up of His saints, that they feel their enforced inactivity to be a severe trial. But let them rest assured that the Lord has some good reason for laying this restraint upon them, and therefore they should earnestly seek grace that they may not be fretful under it, nor take matters into their own hands in seeking to force a way out of it. Ponder the case of Elijah! He uttered no complaints nor did he venture out of the retirement into which God had sent him. He waited patiently for the Lord to direct him, to set him at liberty, and to enlarge his sphere of usefulness. Meanwhile, by fervent intercession, he was made a great blessing unto those in the home.
“And it came to pass after many days” (1 Kings 18:1). Let us attend to this expression of the blessed Spirit. It is not “after three years” (as was indeed the case), but “after many days.” There is here an important lesson for our hearts if we will heed it: we should live a day at a time, and count our lives by days. “Man that is born of a woman is of a few days, and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down” (Job 14:1, 2). Such was the view of life taken by the aged Jacob: for when Pharaoh asked the Patriarch “How old art thou?” he answered “the days of the years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty years” (Gen. 47:9). Happy are they whose constant prayer is, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psa. 90:12). Yet how prone we are to count by years. Let us endeavour to live each day as though we knew it were our last.
“And it came to pass”: that is, the predetermined counsel of Jehovah was now actualized. The fulfillment of the Divine purpose can neither be retarded nor forced by us. God will not be hurried either by our petulance or our prayers. We have to wait His appointed hour, and when it strikes, He acts—it “comes to pass” just as He had foreordained. The precise length of time His servant is to remain in a certain place was predestined by Him from all eternity. “It came to pass after many days”: that is, over a thousand since the drought had commenced, “that the word of the Lord came to Elijah.” God had not forgotten His servant. The Lord never forgets any of His people, for has He not said, “Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of My hands: thy walls are continually before Me” (Isa. 49:16)? O that we might never forget Him, but “set the LORD always before us” (Psa. 16:8). “In the third year”: that is, of his stay at Zarephath.
“The word of the LORD came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, show thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth” (1 Kings 18:1). So that we may better understand the tremendous test of the Prophet’s courage which this command involved, let us seek to obtain some idea of what must now have been the state of that wicked king’s mind. We commenced this book by pondering the words, “And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (17:1). Now we are to consider the sequel to this. We have seen how it fared with Elijah during the lengthy interval, we must now ascertain how things were going with Ahab, his court, and his subjects. Dreadful indeed must be the state of things on earth when the heavens are shut up and no moisture is given for three years. “There was a sore famine in Samaria” (18:2).
“And Ahab said unto Obadiah, Go into the land, unto all fountains of water and unto all brooks: peradventure we may find grass to save the horses and mules alive, that we lose not all the beasts” (v. 5). The barest possible outline is here presented, but it is not difficult to fill in the details. Israel had sinned grievously against the Lord, and so they were made to feel the weight of the rod of His righteous anger. What a humbling picture of God’s favoured people, to behold their king going forth to seek grass, if perchance he could find a little somewhere so that the lives of those beasts which remained might be saved. What a contrast from the abundance and glory of Solomon’s days! But Jehovah had been grossly dishonoured, His Truth had been rejected. The vile Jezebel had defiled the land by the pestilential influence of her false prophets and priests. The altars of Baal had supplanted that of the Lord, and therefore as Israel had sown the wind they must now be made to reap the whirlwind.
And what effect had the severe judgment of Heaven produced upon Ahab and his subjects? “And Ahab said unto Obadiah, go into the land unto all fountains of water and unto all brooks: peradventure we may find grass to save the horses and mules alive, that we lose not all the beasts.” There is not a single syllable here about God! not a word about the awful sins which had called down His displeasure upon the land! Fountains, brooks and grass were all that occupied Ahab’s thoughts—relief from the Divine affliction was all he cared about. It is ever thus with the reprobate. It was so with Pharaoh: as each fresh plague descended upon Egypt he sent for Moses and begged him to pray for its removal, and as soon as it was removed he hardened his heart and continued to defy the Most High. Unless God is pleased to directly sanctify to our souls His chastisements, they profit us not. No matter how severe His judgments or how long they be protracted, man is never softened thereby unless God performs a work of grace within him. “And they gnawed their tongues for pain, and blasphemed the God of Heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds” (Rev. 16:10, 11).
Nowhere is the awful depravity of human nature more grievously displayed than at this very point. First, men look upon a prolonged dry season as a freak of nature which must be endured, refusing to see the hand of God in it. Later, if it be borne in upon them that they are under a Divine judgment, they assume a spirit of defiance. A later Prophet in Israel complained of the people in his day for manifesting this vile temper: “O LORD, are not Thine eyes upon the Truth? Thou hast stricken them, but they have not grieved; Thou hast consumed them, but they have refused to receive correction; they have made their faces harder than a rock” (Jer. 5:3). From this we may see how utterly absurd and erroneous are the teachings of Romanists on purgatory and of Universalists on Hell. “The imagined fire of purgatory or the real torments of Hell possess no purifying effect, and the sinner under the anguish of his sufferings will continually increase in wickedness and accumulate wrath to all eternity” (Thomas Scott).
“And Ahab said unto Obadiah, Go into the land, unto all fountains of water and unto all brooks: peradventure we may find grass to save the horses and mules alive, that we lose not all the beasts. So they divided the land between them to pass throughout it: Ahab went one way by himself and Obadiah went another way by himself” (1 Kings 18:5, 6). What a picture do these words present! Not only had the Lord no place in his thoughts, but Ahab says nothing about his people, who next to God should have been his chief concern. His evil heart seemed incapable of rising higher than horses and mules: such was what concerned him in the day of Israel’s dire calamity. What a contrast between the low and groveling selfishness of this wretch and the noble spirit of the man after God’s own heart. “And David spake unto the LORD when he saw the angel that smote the people and said, Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly: but these sheep, what have they done? Let Thine hand I pray Thee be against me and against my father’s house” (2 Sam. 24:17). That was the language of a regenerate king when his land was trembling beneath God’s chastening rod because of his sin.
As the drought continued and the distressing effects thereof became more and more acute we can well imagine the bitter resentment and hot indignation borne by Ahab and his vile consort against the one who had pronounced the terrible interdict of no dew nor rain. So incensed was Jezebel that she had “cut off (slain) the Prophets of the LORD” (1 Kings 18:4), and so infuriated was the king that he had sought diligently for Elijah in all the surrounding nations, requiring an oath from their rulers that they were not providing asylum for the man whom he regarded as his worst enemy, and cause of all his trouble. And now the Word of the Lord came to Elijah saying, “Go, show thyself unto Ahab”! If much boldness had been required when he was called upon to announce the awful drought, what courage was needed for him to now face the one who sought him with merciless rage?
“It came to pass after many days that the word of the LORD came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, show thyself to Ahab.” The movements of Elijah were all ordered of God: he was “not his own” but the servant of Another. When the Lord bade him, “hide thyself” (17:3), he must retire at His orders, and when He says, “Go show thyself,” Elijah must comply with the Divine will. Elijah’s courage did not fail him, for “the righteous are bold as a lion” (Prov. 28:1). He declined not the present commission but went forth without murmur or delay. Humanly speaking it was highly dangerous for the Prophet to return unto Samaria, for he could not expect any welcome from the people who were in such sore straits nor any mercy from the king. But with the same unhesitating obedience as had previously characterized him, so now he complied with his Master’s orders. Like the Apostle Paul he counted not his life dear unto himself, but was ready to be tortured and slain if that was the Lord’s will for him.
“And as Obadiah was in the way, behold, Elijah met him” (1 Kings 18:7). A few extremists (“Separatists”) have grossly traduced the character of Obadiah, denouncing him as an unfaithful compromiser, as one who sought to serve two masters. But the Holy Spirit has not stated he did wrong in remaining in Ahab’s employ, nor intimated that his spiritual life suffered in consequence. Instead, He has expressly told us that “Obadiah feared the LORD greatly” (v. 3), which is one of the highest tributes which could be paid him. God has often given His people favour in the sight of heathen masters (as Joseph and Daniel), and has magnified the sufficiency of His grace by preserving their souls in the midst of the most unpromising environments. His saints are found in very unlikely places—as in “Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22).
There is nothing wrong in a child of God holding a position of influence if he can do so without the sacrifice of principle. On the contrary, it may enable him to render valuable service to the cause of God. Where would Luther and the Reformation have been, humanly speaking, had it not been for the Elector of Saxony? And what would have been the fate of our own Wycliffe, if John O’Gaunt had not constituted him his ward? As the governor of Ahab’s household, Obadiah was undoubtedly in a most difficult and dangerous position, yet so far from bowing his knee to Baal, he was instrumental in saving the lives of many of God’s servants. Though surrounded by so many temptations, he preserved his integrity. It is also to be carefully noted that when Elijah met him, he uttered no word of reproach unto Obadiah. Let us not be too hasty in changing our situation, for the Devil can assail us in one place just as easily as in another.
As Elijah was on his way to confront Ahab, he met the pious governor of the king’s household, “And as Obadiah was in the way, behold, Elijah met him: and he knew him, and fell on his face, and said, Art thou my lord Elijah?” (v. 7). Obadiah recognized Elijah, yet he could scarcely believe his eyes. It was remarkable that the Prophet had survived the merciless onslaught of Jezebel on the servants of Jehovah: it was still more incredible to see him here, alone, journeying into Samaria. Most diligent search had long been made for him, but in vain, and now he comes unexpectedly upon him. Who can conceive the mixed feelings of awe and delight as Obadiah gazed upon the man of God, by whose word the awful drought and sore famine had almost completely desolated the land? Obadiah at once showed the greatest respect for him and did obeisance to him. “As he had shown the tenderness of a father to the sons of the Prophets, so he showed the reverence of a son to the father of the Prophets, and by this made it appear he did indeed fear the Lord greatly” (Matthew Henry).
“And he answered him, I am: go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here” (v. 8). The Prophet’s courage did not fail him. He had received orders from God to “show himself unto Ahab,” and therefore he made no attempt to conceal his identity when interrogated by the governor. Let us shrink not to boldly declare our Christian discipleship when challenged by those who meet us. It is also to be duly noted that Elijah honoured Ahab, wicked though he was, by speaking of him to Obadiah as “thy lord.” It is the duty of inferiors to show respect to their superiors; of subjects concerning their sovereign, of servants concerning their master. We must render to all that to which their office or station entitles them. It is no mark of spirituality to be vulgar in our conduct or brusque in our speech. God commands us to “Honour the king” (1 Peter 2:17) —because of his office—whether he be an Ahab or a Nero.
“And he answered him, I am: go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here. And he said, What have I sinned, that thou wouldest deliver thy Servant into the hand of Ahab, to slay me?” (1 Kings 18:8, 9). It was only natural that Obadiah should wish to be excused from so perilous an errand. First, he asks wherein he had offended either the Lord or His Prophet that he should be asked to be the messenger of such distasteful tidings to the king—sure proof that his own conscience was clear! Second, he lets Elijah know of the great pains which his royal master had taken in endeavouring to track down the Prophet and discover his hiding place: “As the LORD thy God liveth, there is no nation or kingdom wither my lord hath not sent to seek thee” (v. 10). Yet in spite of all their diligence they were not able to discover him—so effectually did God secure him from their malice. Utterly futile is it for man to attempt to hide when the Lord seeks him out; equally useless is it for him to seek when God hides anything from him.
“And now thou sayest, Go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here” (v. 11). Surely you are not serious in making such a request. Do you not know the consequence will be fatal to me if I am unable to make good such a declaration? “And it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from thee, that the Spirit of the LORD shall carry thee whither I know not; and when I come and tell Ahab, and he cannot find thee, he shall slay me: but I thy servant fear the LORD from my youth” (v. 12). He was afraid that Elijah would again mysteriously disappear, and then his master would likely be enraged because he had not arrested the Prophet, and certainly he would be furious if he found himself imposed upon by discovering no trace of him when he duly arrived at this spot. Finally, he asks, “Was it not told my lord what I did when Jezebel slew the Prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred men of the Lord’s Prophets by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water?” (v. 13). Obadiah made reference to these noble and daring deeds of his not in any boastful spirit, but for the purpose of attesting his sincerity. Elijah reassured him with an oath, and Obadiah obediently complied with his request: “And Elijah said, As the LORD of hosts liveth, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself unto him today. So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him: and Ahab went to meet Elijah” (vv. 15, 16).
We have discussed how Elijah was called suddenly out of obscurity to appear before the wicked king of Israel and deliver unto him a fearful sentence of judgment, namely, that, “there shall not be dew nor rain these years but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Following the pronouncement of this solemn ultimatum the Prophet, in obedience to his Master, retired from the stage of public action and went into seclusion, spending part of the time by the brook Cherith and part in the humble home of the widow at Zarephath, where in each place his needs were miraculously supplied by God, who suffers none to be the loser by complying with His orders. But now the hour had arrived when this intrepid servant of the Lord must issue forth and once more face Israel’s idolatrous monarch: “the word of the Lord came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go show thyself unto Ahab” (1 Kings 18:1).
We have contemplated the effect which the protracted drought had upon Ahab and his subjects, an effect which made sadly evident the depravity of the human heart. It is written, “The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” (Rom. 2:4)—and again, “when Thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness” (Isa. 26:9). How often do we find these sentences cited as though they are absolute and unqualified statements, and how rarely are the words quoted which immediately follow them: in the one case, “But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath”; and in the other, “Let favour be showed to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness: in the land of uprightness will he deal unjustly, and will not behold the majesty of the LORD.” How are we going to understand these passages, for to the natural man they appear to cancel themselves, the second part of the Isaiah one seeming to flatly contradict the former.
If Scripture be compared with Scripture it will be found that each of the above declarations receive clear and definite exemplification. For example, was it not a sense of the Lord’s goodness—His “lovingkindness” and “the multitude of His tender mercies”—which led David to repentance and made him to cry, “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psa. 51:2)? And again—was it not his realization of the Father’s goodness—the fact that there was “bread enough and to spare” in His House which led the prodigal son to repentance and confession of his sins? So also when God’s judgments were in the earth, to such an extent that we are told, “In those times there was no peace to him that went out nor to him that came in, but great vexations were upon all the inhabitants of the countries. And nation was destroyed of nation and city of city: for God did vex them with all adversity” (2 Chron. 15:5, 6). Did not Asa and his subjects (in response to the preaching of Azariah) “put away the abominable idols out of all the land, and renewed the altar of the LORD”? “And they entered into a covenant to seek the LORD God of their fathers with all their hearts” (vv. 8-12). See also Revelation 11:15.
On the other hand, how many instances are recorded in Holy Writ, both of individuals and of peoples, who were the subjects of God’s goodness to a marked degree, who enjoyed both His temporal and spiritual blessings in unstinted measure, yet so far were those privileged persons from being suitably affected thereby and led to repentance, their hearts were hardened and God’s mercies were abused: “Jeshurun waxed fat and kicked” (Deut. 32:15 and cf. Hosea 13:6). So, too, how often we read in Scripture of God’s judgments being visited upon both individuals and nations, only for them to illustrate the truth of that word, “Lord, when Thy hand is lifted up, they will not see” (Isa. 26:11). A conspicuous example is Pharaoh, who after each plague, hardened his heart afresh and continued in his defiance of Jehovah. Perhaps even more notable is the case of the Jews, who century after century have been inflicted with the sorest judgments from the Lord, yet have not learned righteousness thereby.
Ah, have we not witnessed striking demonstrations of these truths in our own life-time, both on the one side and on the other? What “goodness” did God show unto the favoured inhabitants of the British Isles during the lengthy reign of Queen Victoria, yet how few were led to repentance thereby! Divine favours were received as a matter of course, yea, were regarded far more as the fruits of our own industry than of Divine bounty. The more this Nation was prospered the more God faded from its view. A few years later the scene was rudely changed, peace giving way to war and prosperity to suffering. For a period of four years the judgments of God were in the earth to a degree they had not been previously for many centuries, and the flowers of mankind were cut down by the millions: but what percentage of the world’s inhabitants learned righteousness? Here and there was one who became serious and perchance made some religious profession, but the masses were as godless and senseless as ever.
And how has it been since 1918? As conditions became more normal, as the wheels of industry turned to the manufacturing of something more lucrative than weapons of destruction, as money flowed more freely and the hours of labour were reduced, how did the people conduct themselves? Great Britain (to name no other countries, though what we write applies with equal force unto many others) was granted a new lease on life. Was she, then, so moved by a sense of God’s goodness as to repent of her sins and reform her ways? Far from it: instead, she became more wanton in her mode of life, more godless, more lawless. And now that the judgments of God have again fallen upon her, until her very existence is seriously threatened, death-dealing bombs being rained down upon her inhabitants day and night, yet so far from learning righteousness, the masses are as pleasure-mad as ever, defiance of authority raises its ugly head on every side, while those in high places treat with silent contempt protests against Sabbath desecration.
How, then, are we to understand these Divine declarations: “The goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” and, “When Thy judgments are in the earth the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness”? Obviously they are not to be taken absolutely and without modification. They are to be understood with this proviso: if a sovereign God is pleased to sanctify them unto our souls. It is God’s ostensible (we say not His secret and invincible) design that displays of His goodness should lead men to repentance and that manifestations of His wrath should bring men into the paths of righteousness: such is their natural tendency, and such ought to be their effect upon us. Yet the fact remains that neither prosperity nor adversity by themselves will produce these beneficent results, for where the Divine dispensations are not expressly sanctified unto us neither His mercies nor His chastisements avail to work any improvement in us.
Hardened sinners “despise the Lord’s goodness and longsuffering,” prosperity rendering them the less disposed to receive the instructions of righteousness, and where the means of grace (the faithful preaching of God’s Word) are freely afforded among them, they continue profane and close their eyes to all the discoveries of Divine grace and holiness. When God’s hand is lifted up to administer gentle rebukes, it is despised; and when more terrible vengeance is inflicted, they steel their hearts against the same. It has always been thus. Only as God is pleased to work in our hearts, as well as before our eyes, only as He deigns to bless unto our souls His providential dealings, is a teachable disposition wrought in us. And only then are we brought to acknowledge His justice in punishing us and to reform our evil ways. Whenever Divine judgments are not definitely sanctified to the soul, sinners continue to stifle conviction and rush forward in defiance until they are finally swallowed up by the wrath of a holy God.
Does someone ask, What has all the above to do with the subject in hand? The answer is, much every way. It goes to show that the terrible perversity of Ahab was no exceptional thing, while it also serves to explain why he was quite unaffected by the sore visitation of God’s judgment on his dominion. A total drought which had continued for upwards of three years was upon the land, so that “there was a sore famine in Samaria” (1 Kings 18:2). This was indeed a Divine judgment: did, then, the king and his subjects learn righteousness thereby? Did their ruler set them an example by humbling himself beneath the mighty hand of God, by acknowledging his vile transgressions, by removing the altars of Baal and restoring the worship of Jehovah? No, so far from it, during the interval he suffered his wicked consort to “cut off the Prophets of the LORD” (18:4), thus adding iniquity to iniquity and exhibiting the fearful depths of evil into which the sinner will plunge unless deterred by God’s restraining power.
“And Ahab said unto Obadiah, Go into the land, unto all fountains of water and unto all brooks: peradventure we may find grass to save the horses and mules alive, that we lose not all the beasts” (1 Kings 18:5). As a straw in the air reveals the direction of the wind so these words of Ahab indicate the state of his heart. The living God had no place in his thoughts, nor was he exercised over the sins which had called down His displeasure on the land. Nor does he seem to have been the least concerned about his subjects, whose welfare—next to the glory of God—should have been his chief concern. No, his aspirations do not appear to have risen any higher than fountains and brooks, horses and mules, that the beasts which yet remained might be saved. This is not evolution but devolution, for when the heart is estranged from its Maker its direction is ever lower and lower.
In the hour of his deep need Ahab turned not in humility unto God, for he was a stranger to Him. Grass was now his all-absorbing object-providing that could be found, he cared nothing about anything else. If food and drink were obtainable, then he could have enjoyed himself in the palace and been at ease among Jezebel’s idolatrous Prophets. But the horrors of famine drove him out. And instead of dwelling upon and rectifying the causes thereof, he seeks only a temporary relief. Alas, he had sold himself to work wickedness and had become the slave of a woman who hated Jehovah. And Ahab, my reader, was not a Gentile, a heathen, but a favoured Israelite; but he had married an heathen and become enamoured with her false gods. He had made shipwreck of the faith and was being driven to destruction. What a terrible thing it is to depart from the living God and forsake the Refuge of our fathers.
“So they divided the land between them to pass throughout it: Ahab went one way by himself, and Obadiah went another way by himself” (v. 6). The reason for this procedure is obvious: by the king going in one direction and the governor of his household in another, twice as much ground would be covered than if they had remained together. But may we not also perceive a mystical meaning of these words: “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). And what agreement was there between these two men? no more than there is between light and darkness, Christ and Belial, for whereas the one was an apostate, the other feared the Lord from his youth (1 Kings 18:12). It was meet, then, that they should separate and take opposite courses, for they were journeying unto entirely different destinies eternally. Let not this be regarded as “far fetched,” but rather let us cultivate the habit of looking for the spiritual meaning and application beneath the literal sense of Scripture.
“And as Obadiah was in the way, Behold, Elijah met him” (v. 7). This certainly appears to confirm the mystical application made of the previous verse, for there is surely a spiritual meaning in what we have just quoted. What was “the way” which Obadiah was treading? It was the path of duty, the way of obedience to his master’s orders. True it was a very humble task he was performing: that of seeking grass for horses and mules, yet this was the work Ahab had assigned him, and while complying with the king’s word he was rewarded by meeting Elijah! A parallel case is found in Genesis 24:27, where Eliezer in compliance with Abraham’s instructions encountered the damsel whom the Lord had selected as a wife for Isaac: “I being in the way, the LORD led me to the house of my master’s brethren.” So also it was while she was in the path of duty (when gathering of sticks) that the widow of Zarephath met with the Prophet.
We have considered the conversation which took place between Obadiah and Elijah, but would just mention here that very mixed feelings must have filled the heart of the former as his gaze encountered such an unexpected but welcome sight. Awe and delight would predominate as he beheld the one by whose word the fearful drought and famine had almost completely desolated the land: here was the Prophet of Gilead, alive and well, calmly making his way, alone, back into Samaria. It seemed too good to be true and Obadiah could scarcely believe his eyes: greeting him with becoming deference, he asks, “Art thou that my lord Elijah?” Assuring him of his identity, Elijah bade him go and inform Ahab of his presence. This was a very unwelcome commission, yet it was obediently discharged: “So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him” (1 Kings 18:16).
And what of Elijah while he awaited the approach of the apostate king: was his mind uneasy, picturing the angry monarch gathering around him his officers ere he accepted the Prophet’s challenge, and then advancing with bitter hatred and murder in his heart? No, my reader, we cannot suppose so for a moment. The Prophet knew full well that the One who had watched over him so faithfully and supplied his needs so graciously during the long drought, would not fail him now. Had he not good reason to recall how Jehovah had appeared to Laban when he was hotly pursuing Jacob: “And God came to Laban the Syrian in a dream by night and said unto him, Take heed that thou speak not to Jacob either good or bad” (Gen. 31:24). It was a simple matter for the Lord to over-awe the heart of Ahab and keep him from murdering Elijah, no matter how much he desired to do so. Let the servants of God fortify themselves with the reflection that He has their enemies completely under His control, He has His bridle in their mouths and turns them about just as He pleases, so that they cannot touch a hair of their heads without either His knowledge or permission.
Elijah, then, waited with dauntless spirit and calmness of heart for the approach of Ahab, as one who was conscious of his own integrity and of his security in the Divine protection. Well might he appropriate to himself those words: “In God have I put my trust: I will not fear what flesh can do unto me.” Different far must have been the state of the king’s mind as “Ahab went to meet Elijah” (1 Kings 18:16). Though incensed against the man whose fearful announcement had been so accurately fulfilled, yet he must have been half afraid to meet him. Ahab had already witnessed his uncompromising firmness and amazing courage, and knowing that Elijah would not now be intimidated by his displeasure, had good reason to fear that this meeting would not be honourable unto himself.
The very fact that the Prophet was seeking him out, yea had sent Obadiah before him to say, “Behold, Elijah is here,” must have rendered the king very uneasy. Wicked men are generally great cowards: their own consciences are their accusers, and often cause them many misgivings when in the presence of God’s faithful servants, even though they occupy an inferior position in life to themselves. Thus it was with king Herod in connection with Christ’s forerunner, for we are told, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and holy” (Mark 6:20). In like manner, Felix, the Roman governor, trembled before Paul (though Paul was his prisoner) when the Apostle “reasoned of righteousness, temperance and judgment to come” (Acts 24:25). Let not the ministers of Christ hesitate to boldly deliver their message, nor be afraid of the displeasure of the most influential in their congregations.
“And Ahab went to meet Elijah.” We might have hoped that after proving from painful experience the Tishbite was no deceiver, but a true servant of Jehovah whose word had accurately come to pass, that he had now relented, been convinced of his sin and folly, and ready to turn to the Lord in humble repentance. But not so: instead of advancing toward the Prophet with a desire to receive spiritual instruction from him or to request his prayers for him, he fondly hoped that he might now avenge himself for all that he and his subjects had suffered. His opening salutation at once revealed the state of his heart: “Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” (1 Kings 18:17). What a contrast from the greeting given Elijah by the pious Obadiah! No word of contrition fell from Ahab’s lips. Hardened by sin, his conscience “seared as with a hot iron,” he gave vent to his obduracy and fury.
“Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” This is not to be regarded as an unmeasured outburst, the petulant expression of a sudden surprisal, but rather as indicating the wretched state of his soul, for “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” It was the avowed antagonism between evil and good: it was the hissing of the Serpent’s seed against one of the members of Christ: it was the vented spite of one who felt condemned by the very presence of the righteous. Years later, speaking of another devoted servant of God, whose counsel was demanded by Jehoshaphat, this same Ahab said, “I hate him, for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil” (22:8). So far, then, from this charge of Ahab’s making against the character and mission of Elijah it was a tribute to his integrity, for there is no higher testimony to the fidelity of God’s servants than their evoking of the hearty hatred of the Ahabs around them.
“And it came to pass when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” (1 Kings 18:17). How the words of our lips betray the state of our hearts! Such language from the king after the sore judgment which God had sent upon his dominion revealed the hardness and impenitency of his heart. Consider the opportunities which had been given him. He was warned by the Prophet of the certain consequences that would follow his continuance in sin. He had seen what the Prophet had announced surely came to pass. It had been demonstrated before his eye that the idols which he and Jezebel worshipped could not avert the calamity nor give the rain which was so urgently needed. There was everything to convince him that “the Lord God of Elijah” was the sovereign Ruler of Heaven and earth, whose decree none can disannul and whose almighty arm no power can withstand.
Such is the sinner who is left to himself. Let Divine restraint be removed from him and the madness which possesses his heart will burst forth like a broken dam. He is determined to have his own way at all costs. No matter how serious and solemn be the times in which his lot is cast, He is unsobered thereby. No matter how gravely his country be imperiled, nor how many of his fellows be maimed and killed, he must continue to take his fill of the pleasures of sin. Though the judgments of God thunder in his ears louder and louder, he deliberately closes them and seeks to forget unpleasantries in a whirl of gaiety. Though the country be at war, fighting for its very existence, “night life,” with its “bottle parties,” goes on unabated. If air raids compel munitions workers to seek refuge in underground shelters, then their eyes (in one shelter at least) are greeted with notices on its walls—“cards and gambling encouraged.” What is this but a strengthening themselves “against the Almighty,” a flinging of themselves “upon the thick bosses of His bucklers” (Job 15:25, 26)?
Yet, while writing the above lines, we are reminded of those searching words, “Who maketh thee to differ from another?” (1 Cor. 4:7). There is but one answer: a sovereign God, in the plenitude of His amazing grace. And how the realization of this should humble us into the dust, for by nature and by practice there was no difference between us and them: “Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: among whom also we all had our conversation (manner of life) in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind” (Eph. 2:2, 3). It was distinguishing mercy which sought us out when we were “without Christ.” It was distinguishing love which quickened us into newness of life when we were “dead in trespasses and sins.” Thus we have no cause for boasting and no ground for self-complacency. Rather must we walk softly and penitently before Him who has saved us from ourselves.
“And it came to pass when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel” (1 Kings 18:17). Elijah was the one who above all others stood out against Ahab’s desire for uniting Israel in the worship of Baal: and thus, as he supposed, from effecting a peaceful settlement of the religion of the nation. Elijah was the one who in his view had been responsible for all the distress and suffering which filled the land. There was no discernment of God’s hand in the drought, nor any compunction for his own sinful conduct: instead, he seeks to transfer the onus to another and charges the Prophet with being the author of the calamities which had befallen the nation. It is always the mark of a proud and unjudged heart for one who is smarting beneath the righteous rod of God to throw the blame upon someone else, just as a sin-blinded nation which is being scourged for its iniquities will attribute their troubles to the blunders of their political rulers.
It is no unusual thing for God’s upright ministers to be spoken of as troublers of peoples and nations. Faithful Amos was charged with conspiring against Jeroboam the second that the land was not able to bear all his words (Amos 7:10). The Saviour Himself was accused of “stirring up the people” (Luke 23:5); while it was said of Paul and Silas at Philippi that they did “exceedingly trouble the city” (Acts 16:20), and when at Thessalonica they were spoken of as having “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). There is therefore no higher testimony to their fidelity than for the servants of God to evoke the rancor and hostility of the reprobate. One of the most scathing condemnations that could be pronounced on men is contained in those terrible words of our Lord to His unbelieving brethren: “The world cannot hate you; but Me it hateth, because I testify of it that the works thereof are evil” (John 7:7). But who would not rather receive all the charges which the Ahabs can heap upon us rather than incur that sentence from the lips of Christ?
It is the bounden duty of God’s servants to warn men of their danger, to point out that the way of rebellion against God leads to certain destruction and to call upon them to throw down the weapons of their revolt and flee from the wrath to come. It is their duty to teach men that they must turn from their idols and serve the living God otherwise they will eternally perish. It is their duty to rebuke wickedness wherever it be found and to declare that the wages of sin is death. This will not make for their popularity, for it will condemn and irritate those who are determined to gratify their worldly and fleshly lusts—it will disturb their false peace and such plain speaking will seriously annoy them. Those who expose hypocrites, resist tyrants, oppose the wicked, are ever viewed by them as troublers. But as Christ declared, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in Heaven, for so persecuted they the Prophets which were before you” (Matt. 5:11, 12).
“And he answered, I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim” (1 Kings 18:18). Had Elijah been one of those cringing sycophants which are usually found in attendance upon kings, he would have thrown himself at Ahab’s feet, suing for mercy, or rendering mean submission. Instead, he was the ambassador of a greater King, even the Lord of Hosts: conscious of this, he preserved the dignity of his office and character by acting as one who represented a superior power. It was because Elijah realized the presence of Him by whom kings reign, who can restrain the wrath of man and make the remainder thereof to praise Him, that the Prophet feared not the face of Israel’s apostate monarch. Ah, my reader, did we but realize more of the presence and sufficiency of our God, we should not fear what anyone might do unto us. Unbelief is the cause of our fears. O to be able to say, “Behold, God is my salvation: I will trust and not be afraid” (Isa. 12:2)!
Elijah was not to be intimidated by the wicked aspersion which had just been cast upon him. With undaunted courage, he first denies the foul charge: “I have not troubled Israel.” Happy for us if we can truthfully make the same claim: that the chastisements which Zion is now receiving at the hands of a holy God have not been caused in any measure by my sins. Alas, who among us could affirm this? Second, Elijah boldly returns the charge upon the king himself, placing the blame where it truly belonged: “I have not troubled Israel, but thou and thy father’s house.” See here the fidelity of God’s servant as Nathan said to David, so Elijah unto Ahab, “Thou art the man.” A true solemn and heavy charge: that Ahab and his father’s house were the cause of all the sore evils and sad calamities which had befallen the land. The Divine authority with which he was invested warranted Elijah to thus indict the king himself.
Third, the Prophet proceeded to supply proof of the charge which he had made against Ahab: “In that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD and thou hast followed Baalim” (1 Kings 18:18). So far from the Prophet being the enemy of his country he sought only its good. True, he had prayed for and denounced God’s judgment for the wickedness and apostasy of the king and nation, but this was because he desired they should repent of their sins and reform their ways. It was the evil doings of Ahab and his house which had called down the drought and famine. Elijah’s intercession had never prevailed against a holy people: “the curse causeless shall not come” (Prov. 26:2). The king and his family were the leaders in rebellion against God, and the people had blindly followed: here then was the cause of their distress: they were the reckless “troublers” of the nation, the disturbers of its peace, the displeasers of God.
Those who by their sins provoke God’s wrath are the real troublers, and not those who warn them of the dangers to which their wickedness exposes them. “Thou and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD, and thou hast followed Baalim” (1 Kings 18:18). It is quite plain even from the comparatively brief record of Scripture that Omri, the father of Ahab, was one of the worst kings that Israel ever had, and Ahab had followed in the wicked steps of his father. The statutes of those kings were the grossest idolatry. Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, had no equal for her hatred of God and His people and her zeal for the worship of debased idols. So powerful and persistent was their evil influence that it prevailed some two hundred years later (Micah 6:16) and drew down the vengeance of Heaven upon the apostate nation.
“In that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD” (1 Kings 18:18). Therein lies the very essence and heinousness of sin. It is a throwing off of the Divine yoke, a refusing to be in subjection to our Maker and Governor. It is a willful disregard of the Lawgiver and rebellion against His authority. The Law of the Lord is very definite and emphatic. Its first statute expressly forbids our having any other God than the true One; and the second prohibits our making of any graven image and bowing down ourselves before it in worship. These were the awful crimes which Ahab had committed, and they are in substance those which our own evil generation is guilty of, and that is why the frown of Heaven now lies so heavily upon us. “Know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter, that thou hast forsaken the LORD thy God, and that My fear is not in thee, saith the LORD God of hosts” (Jer. 2:19). “And thou hast followed Baalim”: when the true God is departed from, false ones take His place—“Baalim” is in the plural number, for Ahab and his wife worshipped a variety of fictitious deities.
“Now therefore send: gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the Prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the Prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19). Very remarkable is this: to behold Elijah alone, hated by Ahab, not only charging the king with his crimes, but giving him instructions, telling him what he must do. Needless to say, his conduct on this occasion did not furnish a precedent or set an example for all God’s servants to follow under similar circumstances. The Tishbite was endowed with extraordinary authority from the Lord, as is intimated by that New Testament expression, “the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17). Exercising that authority Elijah demanded there should be a convening of all Israel at Carmel, and that there should also be summoned the Prophets of Baal and Ashtaroth, who were dispersed over the country at large. More strange still was the peremptory language used by the Prophet: he simply issued his orders without offering any reason or explanation as to what was his real object in summoning all the people and Prophets together.
In the light of what follows, the Prophet’s design is clear: what he was about to do must be done openly and publicly before impartial witnesses. The time had now arrived when things must be brought to a head: Jehovah and Baal come face to face as it were, before the whole nation. The venue selected for the test was a mountain in the tribe of Issachar, which was well situated for the people to gather there from all parts—it was, be it noted, outside the land of Samaria. It was on Carmel that an altar had been built and sacrifices offered on it unto the Lord (see v. 31), but the worship of Baal had supplanted even this irregular service of the true God—irregular, for the Law prohibited any altars outside those in the Temple at Jerusalem. There was only one way in which the dreadful drought and its resultant famine could be brought to an end and the blessing of Jehovah restored to the nation, and that was by the sin which had caused the calamity being dealt with in judgment, and for that Ahab must gather all Israel together on Carmel.
“As Elijah designed to put the worship of Jehovah on a firm foundation and to restore the people to their allegiance to the God of Israel, he would have the two religions to be fairly tested and by such a splendid miracle as none could question: and as the whole nation was deeply interested in the issue, it should take place most publicly, and on an elevated spot, on the summit of lofty Carmel, and in the presence of all Israel. He would have them all to be convened on this occasion, that they might witness with their own eyes both the absolute power and sovereignty of Jehovah, whose service they had renounced, and also the entire vanity of those idolatrous systems which had been substituted for it” (John Simpson). Such ever marks the difference between truth and error: the one courts the light, fearing no investigation; whereas error, the author of which is the prince of darkness, hates the light, and thrives most under cover of secrecy.
There is nothing to indicate that the Prophet made known unto Ahab his intention: rather does he appear to have summarily ordered the king to summon together the people and the Prophets: all concerned in the terrible sin—leaders and led—must be present. “So Ahab sent unto all the children of Israel, and gathered the Prophets together unto Mount Carmel” (1 Kings 18:20). And why did Ahab comply so meekly and promptly with Elijah’s demand? The general idea among the commentators is that the king was now desperate and as beggars cannot be choosers he really had no other alternative than to consent. After three and a half years famine the suffering must have been so acute that if the so-sorely needed rain could be obtained in no other way except by being beholden to the prayers of Elijah, then so be it. Personally, we prefer to regard Ahab’s acquiescence as a striking, demonstration of the power of God over the hearts of men, yea, even on the king’s, so that “He turneth it whithersoever He will” (Prov. 21:1).
This is a truth—a grand and basic one—which needs to be strongly emphasized in this day of skepticism and infidelity, when attention is confined to secondary causes and the Prime-mover is lost to view. Whether it be in the realm of creation or Providence, it is the creature rather than the Creator who is regarded. Let our fields and gardens bear good crops and the industry of the farmer and the skill of the gardener is praised; let them yield poorly and the weather or something else is blamed: neither God’s smile nor His frown is acknowledged. So, too, in human affairs. How few, how very few acknowledge the hand of God in the present conflict of the nations. And let it be affirmed that the Lord is dealing with us in judgment for our sins, and even the majority of professing Christians are angered by such a declaration. But read through the Scriptures and observe how frequently it is there said the Lord “stirred” up the spirit of a certain king to do this, “moved” him to do that, or “withheld” him from doing the other.
As this is so rarely recognized and so feebly apprehended today we will cite a number of passages in proof. “I also withheld thee from sinning against Me” (Gen. 20:6). “I will harden his (Pharaoh’s) heart, that he shall not let the people go” (Exo. 4:21). “The LORD shall cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies” (Deut. 28:25). “And the Spirit of the LORD begun to move him” (Judges 13:25). “And the LORD stirred up an adversary unto Solomon” (1 Kings 11:14). “And the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria” (1 Chron. 5:26). “The LORD stirred up against Jehoram the spirit of the Philistines” (2 Chron. 21:16). “The LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia that he made a proclamation” (Ezra 1:1). “Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them” (Isa. 13:17). “I have caused thee to multiply as the bud of the field” (Ezek. 16:7). “Behold, I will bring upon Tyrus Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, a king of kings, from the north, with horses and with chariots” (Ezek. 26:7).
“So Ahab sent unto all the children of Israel, and gathered the Prophets together unto Mount Carmel” (1 Kings 18:20). In the light of the above Scriptures what believing heart will doubt for a moment that it was the Lord who made Ahab willing in the day of His power, willing to obey the one whom he hated above all others! And when God works, He works at both ends of the line: He who inclined the wicked king to carry out Elijah’s instructions, moved not only the people of Israel but also the Prophets of Baal to comply with Ahab’s proclamation, for He controls His foes as truly as He does His friends. Possibly the people in general assembled together under the hope of beholding the rain fall at the call of Elijah, while the false Prophets probably looked with contempt upon their being required to journey unto Carmel at the demand of Elijah through Ahab.
Because the Divine judgment had been inflicted on account of the apostasy of the nation and especially as a testimony against its idolatry, the nation must be (outwardly and avowedly at least) reclaimed before the judgment could be removed. The lengthy drought had wrought no change, and the consequent famine had not brought the people back to God. So far as we can gather from the inspired narrative, the people were, with few exceptions, as much wedded to their idols as ever; and whatever may have been either the convictions or the practices of the remnant who bowed not their knee to Baal, they were so afraid to publicly express themselves (lest they be put to death) that Elijah was unaware of their very existence. Nevertheless, till the people were brought back unto their allegiance to God, no favour could be expected from Him.
“They must repent and turn themselves from their idols, or nothing could avail to avert God’s judgment. Though Noah and Samuel and Job had made intercession, it would not have induced the Lord to withdraw from the conflict. They must forsake their idols and return to Jehovah.” Those words were written almost a century ago, yet they are as true and pertinent now as they were then, for they enunciate an abiding principle. God will not wink at sin or gloss over evil doing. Whether He is dealing in judgment with an individual or with a nation, that which has displeased Him must be rectified before there can be a return of His favour. It is useless to pray for His blessing while we refuse to put away that which has called down His curse. It is vain to talk about exercising faith in God’s promises until we have exercised repentance for our sins. Our idols must be destroyed ere God will again accept our worship.