This message is based on a part of the life of Elijah. After Israel was settled in the land, there was a period under the judges when each did what was right in his own eyes. That was followed by the choice of a king. Three kings reigned over Israel when it was a united nation—Saul, David, and Solomon. Solomon had reigned over Israel at about 1000 B.C. But now Solomon was dead and 1 Kings 12 tells how Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) became king. Rehoboam rejected the people’s request to relieve the tax burden, and this led to division within the nation Israel. The first two kings of the divided kingdom were Jeroboam (in the North) and Rehoboam (in the South). Rehoboam was Solomon’s son, and Jeroboam was one of Solomon’s servants. (For a further study about King Rehoboam, please request Bible Helps booklet #345, Lessons from the Life of Rehoboam.)
The Bible book of 1 Kings traces the line of kings in the North from Jeroboam through Ahab, and also the line of kings in the South from Rehoboam through Jehoshaphat. Some of Judah’s kings in the South were good kings. By way of contrast, all of the kings in the North were bad. (Kings were classified as “good” or “bad” on the basis of whether they promoted the worship of the true God, or whether they strayed into idolatry.)
The king of Israel (in the North) at the time of our lesson today was a man named Ahab. He reigned over Israel for 22 years, and “did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him” (1 Kings 16:33). Ahab had married the wicked woman Jezebel, and together, both served and worshiped Baal—the Canaanite storm god. Baal was considered the life-giving god who brought rains so that the people might have abundant crops. He was the god of fertility. Child sacrifice and deviant sexual practices were part of the worship of Baal.
Jezebel was determined to spread the worship of Baal throughout Israel. Baal-worship had become the official religion of the royal court, and hundreds of pagan priests lived and dined in the palace precincts (1 Kings 18:19). The faithful priests and Levites, who served the true and living God, had left Israel in the North and gone to Judah in the South (2 Chronicles 11:13-16).
It was at this crucial time in the Northern kingdom of Israel—when pagan worship was making inroads among God’s people—that Elijah appeared on the scene. The message in this issue of Bible Helps tells about the beginning of Elijah’s ministry, and centers especially on the widow’s jug of oil which did not become exhausted—in response to her simple faith.
1. The Beginning of Elijah’s Ministry (1 Kings 17:1-7)
Jeroboam (the first king of Israel after the division) tried to change the religion in Israel from the worship of Jehovah God to the worship of Baal. He had set up idols to Baal at the villages of Dan and Bethel. He feared that if the people of the Northern tribes worshiped at Jerusalem (which was in the South), the two kingdoms would tend to want to unite again.
By the time Elijah appeared on the scene, several kings had succeeded Jeroboam, and now Ahab was ruling in Israel. Ahab was the most wicked of Israel’s kings, and he saw no harm in participating in the pagan religions of the Canaanites. But God sent the prophet Elijah on the scene. Elijah appeared suddenly. We know nothing about his background, his family, or his call to the prophetic ministry.
Elijah immediately confronted the idolatry and immorality that were being promoted by Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah had the courage to challenge the evil rulers, and hopefully stem the tide of their corrupt ways. He was a courageous man who spoke out against evil—without any concern for his personal safety.
Elijah (in verse 1 of our text) announced to King Ahab that there would be no dew nor rain in Israel during the next several years. Elijah said that Israel would suffer a severe drought; starvation would result; there would be clear evidence that the Lord God of Israel (and not Baal) controlled the weather!
The New Testament says that the famine lasted 3 1/2 years (Luke 4:25 and James 5:17). The autumn and spring rains (and the summer dew) were necessary for the crops to germinate and grow. But God threatened to withhold these sources of water from the land if His people turned from Him to serve other gods. Many years before, in Deuteronomy 11:16-17, God had said that if His people did not obey Him, He would withhold the rain—to chastise them—and the earth would not produce crops. Elijah knew that the pagan worshipers believed that Baal was the storm god, and so this announcement (about a coming drought) was a clear challenge to their belief that Baal controlled the weather.
In verses 2-3 of 1 Kings 17, we learn that once Elijah had delivered his message, God ordered him to hide. Obviously, Elijah’s message to Ahab infuriated the king, and it was not safe for Elijah to stay in the area of Samaria. Elijah was ordered to hide in a ravine east of the Jordan River, and make his home by the brook Cherith. The brook was what in Israel is called a “wadi”—a stream-bed that flows with water during the rainy season, and dries up when the weather turns hot.
In verses 4-6, Elijah was told how he would survive while hiding at Cherith. He would drink from the brook and eat what the ravens brought to him. And so, even though Elijah was in a wilderness area, God miraculously provided for him, much as He had done for the entire nation during the 40 years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness.
Being fed by ravens seemed like a strange means of provision, but Elijah did as he was told. This is a striking testimony to his faith in the word of the Lord. God honored his faith by providing for his physical needs (verse 6). The ravens brought bread and meat every morning and evening. (Where the birds obtained this food in a time of famine, we do not know—but the Lord supplied it and the birds delivered it! Normally, people in that society did not eat much meat, but with the severe drought, many animals were dying and so meat was more abundant.)
Why did God provide for Elijah in such an unusual manner? Perhaps the mental image of black ravens delivering food to Elijah twice a day (on schedule), helped to embed in his memory the fact that God never forsakes His people, no matter how severe the circumstances. Elijah would need to have his faith reinforced soon enough—in order to face the challenge of powerful kings, and to confront the pagan priests of Baal.
The drought persisted, and the famine spread throughout Israel. It lasted more than three years (1 Kings 18:1). Eventually Elijah’s own water supply dried up (verse 7), and the Lord directed him to travel northwest to the Phoenician city of Zarephath (along the Mediterranean coast)—just north of Israel’s borders.
2. The Widow’s Cruse of Oil (1 Kings 17:8-14)
Elijah was instructed to travel out of Israel, and take a 100-mile journey into a region where the Canaanite religion was the prevailing system of belief. Zarephath (up in Phoenicia) was a center of Baal worship. Zarephath was not part of Ahab’s territory, but was in the region where Jezebel’s father reigned. God promised to use a widow in that city to provide for Elijah’s food and lodging.
When Elijah arrived at the gate of the town (verse 10), he saw a widow gathering sticks for fuel. And when Elijah asked for a drink of water, the widow went to get it (verse 11). But before she left to get the water, Elijah asked her to bring a piece of bread.
The widow, however, was in a desperate situation. Her dire poverty meant that she had very little food to eat—only a handful of flour left in a jar—and a small amount of cooking oil in a cruse (a small jug). She had been gathering sticks to use in cooking a final meal for her and her son (verse 12). (The woman’s use of the words, “as the Lord thy God liveth” may suggest that this woman was a person of faith in the true God, even though she lived in a foreign land outside of Israel. She may have been a refugee from Israel—or she may have learned about the true God by some other means.)
Elijah’s response (in verse 13) may seem somewhat insensitive. The woman barely had enough flour and oil to prepare food for herself and her son, yet this stranger was asking to be fed first! Actually, Elijah was presenting the widow with a test of faith. Despite her scarcity of food, she was to feed the prophet before she met her own needs and those of her son. The word “cake” (verse 13) speaks of the smallest kind of loaf (perhaps something like an Irish “scone”). Even so, Elijah dared to ask the woman for something she really could not afford to give.
Elijah spoke to her in the name of “the Lord God of Israel” (verse 14), and assured her that it was the living God who would sustain her. Elijah undoubtedly sensed the widow’s anxiety over her meager supplies, and so made it clear that God would not let the flour and oil in her containers run out. Her supplies would last until that time when the rains would come and the crops would grow again.
3. The Results of Trusting God (1 Kings 17:15-24)
The widow responded in faith, and did what Elijah had said. God honored her faith by providing a food supply for her and her son and Elijah for many days (verse 15). In fact, no matter how much of the ingredients the woman used, there was always some flour and oil left (verse 16).
The fresh supply of oil and flour was a constant reminder to Elijah and to the widow of the value of daily trusting God for our needs. That reminds us of a special New Testament promise found in Colossians 2:6. “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him.” Just as you have trusted Christ to save you, continue to trust Him as you face the problems of each day.
The latter part of 1 Kings 17 gives another interesting incident in the life and ministry of Elijah. In verses 17-24 we are told how Elijah restored the widow’s son after he had taken ill and died. This is a reminder that the God of Israel is the Lord of life and of death. In the physical realm, He can bring life again to a cold body that had died. In the spiritual realm, He can bring new life to those who are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-10).
Elijah took the boy to his room, stretched himself over the body, and pleaded with God to return his life. After the third prayer, the child revived, and the widow was convinced that the Lord, He is God! The widow’s words, “Now by this I know” (verse 24), show an inner certainty that was cemented in her mind by this miracle. The miracle of restoring her dead son was an experience even greater than the steady daily provision of food for her and her son.
Three miracles were demonstrated in 1 Kings 17:
- The feeding by the brook Cherith.
- The cruse of oil that never was exhausted.
- The power of God to restore a dead child to life.
These miracles without a doubt gave Elijah special boldness when he stood before Ahab, and later before the prophets of Baal.
There are some practical applications that grow out of this lesson:
1) We know nothing about Elijah’s genealogy. His parents are not named, and no one is even sure about the exact location of his home town. God does not depend on people with “big names,” or on people with illustrious backgrounds, to do His work. God often uses ordinary people who are dedicated to serving Him, regardless of background and heritage.
2) There were four miracle periods in Bible times. They were clustered around critical periods in human history. Miracles were prominent in the days of Moses and Joshua, the time of Elijah and Elisha, the period of Daniel in exile, and the days of Christ and the Apostles. Other long periods of Bible history are passed over without any record of unusual miracles. For example, Abraham never performed a miracle; King David was not a miracle worker; John the Baptist did no miracles (John 10:41). God has protected the significance of miracles by the rarity of their occurrence.
3) Even though Elijah was a courageous man, Elijah’s own faith at times must have been tested—especially when it looked like God’s plans for him seemed almost ridiculous. After all, who ever heard of being fed by ravens, or depending on a poverty-stricken widow for daily sustenance? We too are instructed not to be anxious about our daily needs (Matthew 6:25-34)—and yet we find it hard sometimes to believe that God will take care of us. In moments when our faith is weak and we are inclined to give up, we need to remember how God provided for Elijah, a widow, and her son!
Louisa Stead and her husband (and their 4-year-old daughter) lived in New York City. One afternoon during the summer of 1890, Louisa packed a picnic lunch, and their little family spent some time along the shore of Long Island—playing in the sand, wading in the ocean, and enjoying a few hours of relaxation and rest.
Mrs. Stead said to herself, as she watched her husband and their little girl playing the sand, “My cup runneth over.” Her thoughts for the moment went back over the chain of events that had brought her to that happy hour.
Louisa was born in England and had come to America in 1871 on a visit with her family. She was deeply moved by a speaker’s call for young people to volunteer for missionary service in China, and she decided to go, but she was rejected on account of her health. Later she had met Mr. Stead, and they had married. God blessed their union with a sweet little girl. She often said, “What more could one ask in life than a good husband and a lovely little child—and a feeling that one has found his place in God’s plan?”
But just then, as she was sitting along the shore thinking back over the past, she saw a little boy out in the water beyond the breakers, struggling against the wind and the strong waves— trying to get back to shore. She called to her husband, “That little boy out there seems to be in trouble”—and without hesitating at all, Mr. Stead told his wife to look after their daughter—and he plunged into the waves.
Louisa saw her husband reach the lad’s side, and place his strong arm around the struggling youth—and begin to swim back toward the shore. But the boy, instead of yielding himself to the strength and skill of the older man—in his fright—kept struggling and pulling wildly. As Louisa looked on in horror, she saw the two of them go down under the waves. Later they emerged, only to drop quickly out of sight again. She rushed to where their daughter was playing in the sand, picked the child up, and held her close to her trembling body. She called out over the stormy waves hoping the words would reach her husband: “Darling, where are you?” The only answer was the echo of her own words.
Later that evening the body of Mr. Stead was recovered. The next few weeks were dark days for that heart-broken mother and her little daughter. She sought comfort from reading the words of the Bible, and from singing some of the hymns of the church. But not only were the months that followed sad and lonely, but coupled with her grief was the added burden of providing for her little family. This was before the days of Social Security; there was nothing like a “survivor’s pension.”
But one afternoon when the pantry was about empty, and there was scarcely anything left to eat, Mrs. Stead and her daughter continued to pray that God would provide for them out of His bounties. The next morning she found a large basket of food at the front door, and an envelope with enough money to buy shoes for the little girl. She was so uplifted by that experience that she began to write:
“’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at his word,
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him,
How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er,
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
Oh for grace to trust Him more!”
Christians all over the world have been inspired to face hard places in the spirit of the 4th stanza:
“I’m so glad I learned to trust Thee,
Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend;
And I know that Thou art with me,
Will be with me to the end.”
Just as Elijah trusted God to send food by way of the ravens when he was lodging by the brook, and just as Elijah and the widow of Zarephath trusted the God of Israel for a fresh supply of oil and flour, and just as Louisa Stead received special help after the death of her husband—so we are told also to throw all our anxieties on Him, because He cares for us. “Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you” (1 Peter 5:7).