The sudden appearance of Elijah in the opening verses of chapter 17 announced a dramatic new development in the Lord’s dealing with his rebellious kings and people. Nothing like this had happened before. Divine judgment in a comprehensive way had now fallen upon Israel. Elijah went into hiding to escape Ahab’s vengeance but eventually the drought dried up the brook which had supplied him water.
Zarephath was a coastal town south of Sidon and north of Tyre. In other words, it was the territory ruled by Ethbaal, Jezebel’s father and Ahab’s father-in-law. It was Baal’s territory, as it were; enemy territory, so it might seem that Elijah had gone from the frying pan into the fire. But he is going to discover that Phoenicia belonged to Yahweh as fully as Israel did!
Notice that the Lord “commanded” a widow to provide for Elijah just as he had before commanded the ravens to provide for him (17:4). It does not appear that this divine command was known to the woman herself. She had to learn what role she was to play in Elijah’s life through the circumstances of her encounter with the prophet! But God is ordering events as always.
This is evidence of how severely the drought had affected the land. She was not a poor woman or at least she had not been. She owned her own house, as we will see. She had another room for a guest, the room in which Elijah stayed. But she has been reduced to utter destitution for the want of food. If she were suffering so, a woman who owned a home, no doubt others around her less well off than she were by this time actually dying of starvation.
Wherever Elijah goes life and abundance break out because he is the bearer of the word and the presence, grace and power of the Living God. [Leithart, 128]
Still today, as I have discovered at several death beds, the ordinary way to tell if someone has died is that they have stopped breathing.
Twice before now the threat of death was overcome. So both Elijah and the woman seem to understand that if death occurred Yahweh must have brought it to pass and they must therefore deal with him either through the man of God on the woman’s part or directly on Elijah’s part. They know that much. The woman assumed – as do so many still today – that her son’s death must be punishment for some misbehavior on her part. After all, the death of her son meant the death of her family name, the extinction of her husband’s line. Surely she must have committed a grave sin to deserve this. That is not always a faulty way of thinking, but in many cases it is and it was here. Think of the disciples asking the Lord regarding the man born blind in John 9, “Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” And remember the Lord’s reply: “Neither this man nor his parents; he was born blind that the works of God might be displayed in him.” So it will be here.
By the way, when the woman accused Elijah of coming to bring death to her son she was forgetting the fact that before Elijah arrived she and her son were preparing to die. Such is the forgetfulness that stress, pain, and grief can often visit upon us.
We can never notice often enough the candor, the emotion, even the pent-up frustration and disappointment that is found in the prayers of the godly in the Bible. This is the distinctive character of biblical prayer and really distinguishes it dramatically from the prayer from almost all other religions – included denatured Christianity – in which prayer is ordinarily a formality, a recitation of some particular form of words. Here, however, it is strong feeling and personal and honest heart-felt dealing with God. God does not need to be protected from our strong feelings, as if he wouldn’t know them if we didn’t express them. [Leithart, 130n.] Everywhere in the Bible we find such prayers. Our prayers should have the same character.
There is no explanation offered for this particular ritual and no entirely satisfactory explanation has been proposed. It does seem likely that the image is that of life being transferred from the living to the dead, from one person to another, and that Elijah, being the Lord’s prophet, had life to give in Yahweh’s name as surely as he had truth to give. Why three times remains a mystery. Naaman, remember, would dip himself seven times in the Jordan river before being cleansed of his leprosy.
This is the first instance of recovery from death in the Bible. You obviously cannot say resurrection because that term has a distinct meaning in the Bible, but a dead body being vivified, being brought back to life. You won’t be surprised to learn that commentators of a certain mind typically argue that the boy wasn’t actually dead. People in those days, however, were very much more familiar with death than we are and knew it when they saw it. They were familiar with the look and feel of death.
This sort of statement is what we have learned to call in Hebrew narrative “the evaluative viewpoint.” The narrator uses the words of one of the figures to summarize the main point of the narrative. This Phoenician woman knows of Elijah’s authority as the servant of Yahweh before any Israelite does or at least anyone that we have been introduced to in the narrative. She knows it is not his own power that he has wielded but Yahweh’s.
As we begin an account that will be full of the miraculous it is important for us to take stock and to remember some things about miracles as they occur in the bible. In our day and age the claim of Holy Scripture to the historical nature of these supernatural acts is one of the things that many people cannot swallow. They find here an objection to our faith. They cannot believe that such things ever happened. So it is important for us to have a clear view of the miraculous in the Bible. Miracles are not the display of a magician entertaining a crowd. It is not the “wow factor” that matters most. Indeed, these first miracles are performed virtually in private, witnessed by few or by no one at all beside Elijah himself. The miracles in the Bible, whether the miracles of Moses, Elijah, Elisha or the Lord and his Apostles, all have certain functions and particularly two functions. The first purpose is to accredit God’s messengers. This is the point here as we are told in the words of the widow herself in the last verse of the paragraph. “Now I know that you are a man of God…” That is the first purpose of miracles: to accredit the one who works them as speaking and acting on God’s behalf.
If you remember, this is what Peter said about the Lord’s miracles, so many of whom he had witnessed personally. In his sermon on the day of Pentecost he said:
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know – …”
Miracles are associated with the great periods of biblical revelation for this very reason. We have to know from which men we can be sure will come the very Word of God. And so we find miracles with Moses, with Elijah and Elisha at the headwaters of the movement of the writing prophets, and with the Lord Christ and his apostles. So far as we know from any information in the Bible there are no miracles that have ever occurred in the world apart from some connection with a “man of God” such as Moses, Elijah, or the apostle Paul.
These are obvious and very important facts. Believers who are sure that miracles ought to be the more common experience of the church fail to reckon with the fact that they were never the common experience of the church in biblical times and that they were always associated with prophets and apostles. Indeed, the Lord Jesus made a point of saying this about his miracles in Luke 4:25-26. He was referring to the desire of his friends and neighbors in Nazareth to see one of his miracles and he said:
“But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
There are several implications of this important observation, but one of them is surely that miracles were not performed, in the first place, or even the second, to help people. Not to get the sick well, not to provide sight to the blind, not to heal a leper of his disease. There were plenty of people starving when Elijah helped this Phoenician woman. If the point was to help people he could have helped a great many more than he did. Miracles occur for very specific and special reasons. The first of these is to accredit a man whose office is to speak and act directly on God’s behalf, with God’s authority, and with God’s power. (I should say, by the way, that if the miraculous in the Bible were legendary, a mythical feature of the biblical history, we would certainly not expect this: that they are strictly limited to a very short period of time covered by biblical history and that they are found only in connection with the ministry of certain extraordinarily important officers of the kingdom of God. This chasteness with which the Bible presents the miraculous and the seriousness with which it narrates supernatural events is a powerful argument for the historicity of miracles.
The second reason miracles occur in the Bible is to serve as dramatic and memorable pictures of spiritual reality. You will remember this from our study of the Gospel of John. John’s characteristic term for a miracle is “sign,” that is an event that depicted, that described, that revealed, that stood for something. And the miracle accounts that John includes in his Gospel, all 7 of them, have that character to them to a pronounced degree. John chose to relate the miracles that were most obviously and wonderfully and dramatically signs, revelations of something. The feeding of the 5,000 becomes a lesson in Jesus Christ as the bread of life. The healing of the man born blind becomes a picture of spiritual blindness being overcome by the power of God and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The raising of Lazarus is the impossibly dramatic and unmistakable demonstration of Christ’s power to grant new life to the dead at the resurrection.
The miracles of Moses had this purpose and, because they did, the rest of the Bible looks back to the Passover blood and the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the provision of manna, and the water from the rock as pictures of salvation. And, in the same way, the miracles of Elijah and Elisha will also have this purpose: to represent in unforgettable ways and demonstrate for all to see and in a way none can deny the grace, power, and salvation of God.
Here we have food aplenty in the midst of a famine when everyone is starving to death. You know that very often in the Old Testament prophets, and sometimes also in the New Testament, the salvation of God is depicted under the metaphor of agricultural bounty, of the best food and the finest wine in abundance. For that matter, for us too, any picture of life as it ought to be, any picture of human happiness and fulfillment includes wonderful food and drink. You have such an image in a typical passage like Amos 9:13:
“Behold the days are coming, declares the Lord, when the plowman shall overtake the reaper and the treader of the grapes him who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, – sweet wine in those days was a lot like our iced tea! – and all the hills shall flow with it.”
So miracles are pictures of something and a fabulously important picture and dramatic and unforgettable picture of the nature of God’s salvation which is why those images get into our hymns the way they do. A poet is going to think immediately of ways of describing what God does in the life of a sinful human being and he is going to use these dramatic pictures as a way of describing it.
But it is also worth our noticing that miracles are signs in another way. The miracles of Holy Scripture and these miracles among them are performed in largest part for the benefit of the weak and the lowly, not the high and the mighty. We might think the exact reverse. We would think that the apostles, if they really wanted to make an impression on the Gentile world, would sail to Rome, perform a couple of miracles right in front of the Roman Emperor and prove to him that the meaning of life is to be found in faith in Jesus Christ. But that was not done. Whether it was Israel when she was enslaved in Egypt, or the prostitutes, sinners, and lepers who received the benefit of Christ’s healing power, miracles were rarely witnessed by or performed for the great of this world. Here we have some anonymous widow in Zarephath and her equally unimportant son. She’s not even an Israelite. King Herod Antipas had hoped that Jesus would perform a miracle for him when Pilate sent him over on the day of his crucifixion, but he was disappointed. There are a few exceptions to this otherwise general rule, but by and large insofar as salvation and eternal life come only to the lowly of heart, and the rich, famous, and powerful are rarely so, so biblical miracles are performed in the orbit of the lowly and needy of the earth. This too is a magnificently important “sign” in biblical miracles. For physical situation in the Bible is often a picture of spiritual situation. The “poor” in the Gospels are not first and foremost the physically destitute, but the humble; those conscious of their need. However, most of those who are humble and conscious of their need are relatively poor in the Gospels. It is hard to be conscious of your need when you have everything. And how often do we read in the Bible something like this:
“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” [Isa. 57:15]
Or, something simpler, such as “God resists the proud but shows grace to the humble.” No wonder then that a poor widow and her starving son are chosen as the beneficiaries of Elijah’s first miracles and not King Ahab and Queen Jezebel or some prominent Israelite family also feeling the pinch of famine. The point is made explicitly in the narrative when, in v. 12, we hear the woman say to Elijah that the situation is hopeless. She is preparing to die. She sees nothing before her or her son but starvation. But into that hopelessness Elijah brought the power of Yahweh to give life. This is the explanation of the spiritual death of untold multitudes of human beings: they never admit their hopelessness in and of themselves. They never allow themselves to be brought to the bottom, to the bitter end of themselves. It is there where God works most powerfully and wonderfully: at the bitter end of a human life, in the time of greatest need. If the need is never acknowledged, the divine hand will not provide.
And, of course, there are other great redemptive facts being demonstrated in these miracles. We could consider at length the fact that it was to Gentiles that Elijah was sent and for Gentiles for whom these magnificent provisions were made. The Lord Jesus made that point in Luke 4:25 to the folks in Nazareth. There were many widows and many lepers in Israel but Elijah was sent to none of them, but to a woman of Zarephath, a Gentile. Those who heard him say that in Nazareth gnashed their teeth at him; they were offended by that remark, true observation as it obviously was. It was the great Jewish sin of that time to imagine themselves worthy of God’s grace and the nations of the earth as unworthy of it. Christ’s miracles, as Elijah’s and Elisha’s before him, were a direct attack on that mindset. In Deuteronomy 32:21 the Lord says, speaking of faithless Israel in the future:
“They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.”
That is precisely what is happening here in 1 Kings 17. Israel had provoked the Lord with her idolatry and he would make them jealous by attending not to them but to the Gentiles. And Paul says a similar thing in Romans 11, that the Lord will use the Gentiles and his salvation spread among the Gentile nations to provoke Israel to jealousy so that she will someday look longingly at the Gentiles and want back what they have been given: the salvation of God. It is a striking fact that though, by his own account, the Lord’s ministry was to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, in one particular respect that was not true. He healed the Gentiles too. Think of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7, another woman of the same place and people as this woman, the woman who so humbly asked for the crumbs that fall to the dogs from the children who sit at the table, and whose daughter was delivered from an unclean spirit. She was a Gentile but the Lord was merciful to her and performed a great work on her behalf.
In another way, the same point is made by the demonstration that the Lord was as fully in control of affairs in Phoenicia as he was in Israel. Obviously, if the Lord could feed his prophet by commanding ravens to bring him food, if the Lord could fill a jar with flour and a pitcher with oil for years in Phoenicia, then he could have kept the stream full of water, at least where Elijah was camping out. But the Lord had obviously other purposes in mind. It was not enough to care for his prophet within the borders of Israel. He needed to show Elijah that he could care for him and use him anywhere because he was the living God anywhere and everywhere. And Baal, obviously, was no more powerful in his home territory than he was in Israel. Baal was impotent to supply rain and impotent to prevent Yahweh from providing for people in Baal’s own homeland. The Lord is the living God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the only God, and so as much God of Phoenicia as Israel.
Phoenicia’s gods, now become Israel’s too because of Ahab’s complicity with Jezebel were illusions. The OT draws attention in several places to Phoenicia’s need for imported food from Israel. Israel was in some respects the bread basket of the nations round about her. Remember all the food that Solomon sent north to Hiram in exchange for the cedar he needed for the temple! [5:11] Phoenicia was a great sea power but it couldn’t feed itself. How ironic, when Baal was the god of fertility.
Our gods in the modern Western world are also illusions, powerless. And nothing demonstrates that more profoundly than death! The ultimate demonstration of the illusory nature of all false god is their powerlessness in the face of death; the one enemy we all must face. Baal was supposed to be the god of life because he brought rain and with the rain he brought crops, the food we need to eat! But he couldn’t give life to the dead! Only Yahweh could do that! That is the significance, the sign, of this second miracle, the raising to life of the widow’s dead son.
God could act in Phoenicia, we know that. He had already proved that. He had supplied unending food in the midst of a famine. But no matter how wonderful life may prove to be while it lasts, what of death? Was there a border that even Yahweh could not cross, a kingdom in which he had no power, as Baal had no power when Mot sent him each year to the Underworld? No, this miracle demonstrates to us there is no such border, no such kingdom. Yahweh is as much greater than Mot than he is greater than Baal!
But there is another lesson here, also a lesson taught times without number by the miracles of Holy Scripture. And that lesson is that of the necessity of faith. You remember how many of the Lord’s miracles laid emphasis on precisely this necessity of faith in the Lord. One must believe. In fact, have you not thought that one of the most remarkable, difficult, curious, puzzling statements in all of the Gospels is the one when the Lord said that he couldn’t do very many miracles in Nazareth because of their unbelief? Was the Lord stymied by the unbelief of his fellow townsmen. And then the woman with the issue of blood and the nobleman with the dying daughter and the centurion with a dying son, all of these become through the Lord’s miraculous healings a picture of faith laying hold of the power of God and of salvation coming to sinners by faith. Indeed, so much is stress laid on this faith, the human side of salvation as it were, that Jesus can even say on several occasions to those whom he healed, “Your faith has saved you.” Not I saved you, which he obviously, did but, “Your faith has saved you.” To some blind people to whom he restored sight he said, “According to your faith will it be done to you.” [Matt. 9:22, 29] In the famous account of the paralyzed man who was let down to Jesus through the roof of the house, we read of that man and of his friends who helped him get to the Lord,
“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” [Mark 2:5]
And then, as is made clear in the narrative, the healing of the man’s paralysis was a picture of the forgiveness of his sins and his eternal salvation. Faith had done it because Christ had done it and faith is how we are connected to Christ and his power.
This same emphasis on faith is found here as well. In v. 13 we read that Elijah asked this woman to feed him first and only then to provide for herself and her son from the little that remained of their food. How do you know whether a person has faith? Well, it is pretty simply really. The one with faith does what the man of God tells her to do, no matter that the instructions seem somewhat outrageous on their face. Why should she give Elijah any of her food? The man just showed up out of the blue. Just what she needed: another mouth to feed. People were starving all around her and she had enough for but one last meal for herself and her son. Surely the dying have a right to what little food they have! But Elijah, the man of God, tells her that the Lord will provide and by the grace of God and the Spirit of God working within her, this dear woman believed him. And, believing, she did what she was told. And so, by faith, she received an inexhaustible supply of food. It has always been so: faith is proved by its deeds.
But then her son died. That was unexpected. That was even worse, I suppose, than the thought of their dying together, surrounded by friends and neighbors who were dying as well. Now there is food in the house but her son died anyway. Faith now must do more. The challenge to faith has increased in intensity. [Dillard, 28-29] It is not enough that this poor woman gave the man of God her food before she saw the provision that the Lord would make for her, now she has a dead son on her hands. We’d like to suppose – in one way or another all of us who are Christians do suppose – that once we have practiced our faith, once we have demonstrated that we have faith, there should be no need to test it further. But such is clearly not God’s way in the Bible or in the experience of Christian people. Faith is tested repeatedly and all throughout our lives. Indeed, I do not think it is too much to say that virtually every hard thing and every happy thing that occurs to you all through your life is fundamentally a test of your faith, a testing to purify it and to strengthen it because faith is everything in our lives; it must be because Christ is everything in our lives and faith is what connects us to him. Robert McCheyne remarked, in commenting on the parable of the vine and the branches in John 15, “If we only saw the whole, we should see that the Father is doing little else in the world but training his vines.” [Bonar, 159] This is a fact of supreme importance for us to remember. Whenever we face trials we are to remember that the Lord is testing our faith. It will help us to see what we must do, help us to want to do it with gusto, and help us to believe that in the doing of it, we will find the Lord’s blessing and provision.
No doubt this woman was not expecting this. The Lord had met her in her need so wonderfully all must have seemed to her to be exceedingly well. She had gone from the terror of approaching death to a situation of plenty in the most stupendous way. But it was in fact only the calm that is found in the eye of the storm. One side of the storm has passed but the other side had still to be weathered. And so, suddenly, her son was dead, the only remaining member of her family so far as we can tell. It is interesting, by the way, that no one ever even imagined that Baal could give life to the dead. He was restored to life each year, but never raised the dead himself. Their gods were useful for some things to the ANE people, but everyone understood their distinct limitations.
Christian ministers who claim miracle-working power and Christians who claim that miracles are still occurring today would do well to take heed. The associate pastor of our Bellewood Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, a wonderful Christian man, was born with birth defects. He is missing his arms below the elbows. He came to Christ as a young man in an environment in which people believed in the continuing occurrence of miracles, especially miracles of healing. As he tells the story, he had a friend who became a Christian at about the same time he did. This friend had a medical problem as well: I think I remember it was asthma or something similar. Their Christian friends were always encouraging his friend to seek miraculous healing. No one, not once, encouraged him to seek it. Apparently, in their view, the Christian God could do some things but others were simply beyond him. He could heal asthma but he couldn’t replace missing limbs. No! Yahweh is not Baal! There are no limitations to his power. And any view of miracles today that places such a limitation on the Lord’s power is an open affront to the God of the Bible, reducing him, however unwittingly, to the level of the so-called gods of the ANE. Yahweh is not the product of human imagination. He is the Maker of heaven and earth. He who made hands and feet can give them to those who lack them should he will to do so.
Here, though the stroke was heavier by far, the answer was the same. The Lord, the God of Israel, can do this too, even this. It is no harder for him to give life to the dead than it was to produce an unending supply of flour and oil. And soon the boy was hale and hearty again as if nothing had ever happened. I don’t know this for sure, but don’t you think, I think that fellow was probably a very healthy boy after that, lived a long life, and probably never got so much as a cold. This was, of course, a lesson in faith for Elijah as well. Because his faith would be tempted in the same way: by increasing measures of opposition. After his great triumph on Mt. Carmel, he would have to flee the wrath of Queen Jezebel.
But just as the woman must feed Elijah first, and so demonstrate her confidence in the promise he had made to her, so here too she must turn to Elijah and so, in effect, to Yahweh himself. Her faith may be weak, battered as it has been by the blow that has befallen her, but give her credit for this: she knows that Elijah has something to do with this and that because he is the man of Yahweh, he and he alone can do something about it.
And then Elijah, whom James reminds us, was nothing if he was not a man of prayer, cried out to the Lord. It is hard to believe frankly that doing what he did Elijah did not have the expectation that life would be given back to the widow’s son. Again it is faith, confidence in the Lord, and action taken upon the basis of that confidence in God’s goodness, his power, his readiness to hear, and his faithfulness to his people. Once again the action based on faith is the demonstration of faith.
This was greater faith and greater divine provision than anything the Lord had given so far. No wonder that it is only now that the woman says, “Now I know that you are a man of God…” We are reminded in the NT that this is the great lesson of this episode. In Hebrews 11, which you remember is a list of heroes of faith who illustrate for us what it means to live by faith and the power and blessing that comes to those who trust in the Lord, and we read of women in the ancient epoch by faith receiving back their dead by resurrection. [11:35] Here is the very woman, or one of two, whose faith was rewarded in this spectacular way.
This is the faith that Israel lacked. It is particularly impressive and instructive to find that a woman of Ethbaal’s kingdom has it when Israel does not. The emphasis falls then on faith and only faith. If a Phoenician has faith God’s power is unleashed on her behalf; if an Israelite doesn’t, the drought continues.
Let me remind us all. As Camus put it: “death is philosophy’s only problem.” If a religion cannot answer the question posed by death, if it cannot give us hope in the prospect of death, then it is good for nothing, Any religion or no religion is just as good. But it is precisely our claim as Christians that faith in Jesus Christ brings this supremely: the conquest of death and life to its fullest in the world to come. Paul is bold to say that if our faith is misplaced in this respect, if we cannot believe that God will give us life after we have died, then it is worthless. But it is not worthless and we know it is not not only because of such things as happened in the days of Elijah, not only because Jesus proved himself the resurrection and the life by bringing Lazarus back from the dead, but because the incarnate Son of God, died for us and rose again, the first fruits of those that sleep.
To the doubter we have but to say regarding the possibility of life after death: it has happened before and always and only for the same reason: the power of God brought to bear by the living faith of those who know God and trust him to be able to do absolutely anything for those he loves. There is nothing that has ever happened in the world more wonderful or spectacular than those few instances in which the dead have been brought back to life and, of course, supremely the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing is more wonderful for a human being to know, a human being over whose life hangs the specter of death, than that death can be conquered and life can go on forever. In the final analysis and ultimately, I don’t really care what’s going on with your life right now if you know for a certainty that you will live forever in the world of joy. This is this miracle as a sign. We are going to, you and I, someday after we die we are going to wake up and find ourselves in another place, wonderful beyond the power of words to describe. Just imagine that moment when you wake up in that perfect world! Faith in Jesus Christ will take you there but nothing else!