Elisha’s prophetic ministry, which is especially highlighted in chapters 4-8, clearly demonstrates that God cares for His people and that He sometimes works in sovereign and mighty ways that extend far beyond that which we are able to do or think as He reaches out to meet needs according to His will. But before we look at the details of this story, we should note the contrast between chapter 3 and chapters 4-8. We are taken from the prophet’s ministry before royalty to that of the very poor. In chapter 3 God used him to save these kings from death and defeat. Without the ministry of a man like Elisha, where would the kings be? Dying of thirst in the desert! We would expect that they might have at least tried to honor him in some way, but if they did, it is certainly not mentioned in Scripture. I rather suspect no such honor or even thank you was offered. As Matthew Henry comments:
No, the wise man delivered the army, but no man remembered the wise man, Eccl. 9:15. Or, if he had preferment offered him, he declined it: he preferred the honour of doing good in the schools of the prophets before that of being great in the courts of princes. God magnified him, and that sufficed him--magnified him indeed, for we have him here employed in working no fewer than five miracles.37
So often people in ministry, especially those in the public eye, are more concerned with their reputation and popularity than they are for meeting the needs of people. Unfortunately, our pulpits and other places of public ministry are too often filled with those who, like Diotrephes, love to have first place (cf. 3 John 9 and Luke 22:24 with 2 Thess. 2:1-13). But the prophet Elisha was not concerned with the praise of men nor with position or power or prestige. Though his ministry was filled with miracles they were for edification, not for show. Like the Savior, he came not to be ministered to, but to minister.
Furthermore, Elisha’s day was a time of great national degeneracy and apostasy, much like the times in which we live. The world as a whole was unsympathetic to God’s people and to the ministry of His Word. It was tough to be a believer and to stand for the things of God. For many believers it was often hard to even make ends meet.
Such was the case with the widow in our passage. She was evidently a believer and her husband had been a prophet, a man of God who was involved in the ministry and teaching of Elisha. But one of the lessons of the passage is that regardless of the times in which we live and the problems we face there is no problem or need which God cannot meet if we will simply trust and obey Him. God cares (1 Pet. 5:6-7). The real issue is not the problem, but in our response to the Lord in the face of problems. How do we respond or react? This is the crucial issue!
Though the lessons of the passage are many, it does deal with a financial problem or need and as such it particularly speaks to our physical needs.
1 Now a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the LORD; and the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.” 2 And Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” And she said, “Your maidservant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil.” 3 Then he said, “Go, borrow vessels at large for yourself from all your neighbors, even empty vessels; do not get a few. 4 And you shall go in and shut the door behind you and your sons, and pour out into all these vessels; and you shall set aside what is full.” 5 So she went from him and shut the door behind her and her sons; they were bringing the vessels to her and she poured. 6 And it came about when the vessels were full, that she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” And he said to her, “There is not one vessel more.” And the oil stopped. 7 Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debt, and you and your sons can live on the rest.”
In verse one we are simply told “a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha” for help. Then, in her statement to the prophet, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord,” we learn a few more details about this widow, exactly who this woman was is simply not disclosed. There are a number of principles to glean from these verses:
(1) Though she is not identified in the text and was not on the “who’s who” list of Israel’s prominent people (as most of us are not), the principle is she was not unknown to God. Each one of us are personally known and loved of God; we are the personal objects of His love.
Psalm 147:4 He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them.
Psalm 50:11 I know every bird of the mountains, And everything that moves in the field is Mine.
Matthew 6:26-30 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 29 yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. 30 But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, O men of little faith?
Matthew 10:29-31 Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows.
2 Timothy 2:19 Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness.”
Our needs are never unknown to our sovereign Lord. Though our God is transcendent, above and sovereign over this world, He is also immanent, very much involved with His creation and with His people and the details of their lives. This will be clearly emphasized in the story of the ax head that will follow in chapter 6. Since her husband was one who feared the Lord and since she appealed to the prophet, she was certainly a believer, an Old Testament saint who had a relationship with God. As an Old Testament believer she was the special recipient of God’s very personal care as one of His special children (Phil 4:19).
(2) Though her appeal here was ultimately to the Lord, she sought help through Elisha. Her appeal was based on two facts: (a) as one of the sons of the prophets, her husband had been a servant and student of Elisha, and (b) her husband had revered (had been faithful to) the Lord. This scenario reminds us of how God usually meets the needs of His people through people, especially believers ministering to other believers. That we have such a caring responsibility to one another is one of the great themes of the New Testament, but this especially draws attention to our need to be more involved in the needs of those in our personal care or in our ministry.
Galatians 6:9-10. And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. 10 So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.
Her plight is spelled out in her statement, “and the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.” That her husband was a man who revered the Lord indicates the problem she faced was not caused by her husband’s folly, but by circumstances imposed upon him as a believer in his day of apostasy. According to the Old Testament Law, a person in debt and without the means of repayment or collateral could be forced into bondage as a servant (or his sons) until the year of Jubilee. The sons would have to work off their father’s debt (Lev. 25:39ff).38
“What shall I do for you?” As a man of God, Elisha was as available to a poor widow woman as he was with kings, so he was quick to come to her aid. As God shows no favoritism, but treats all men alike if they will come to Him in faith, so the people of God should show no favoritism and be just as available to minister to the poor as to the rich and the powerful. James, remember, warns us of the sin of partiality:
James 2:1-9 My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. 2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? 8 If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
The qualifications for elders, deacons, or for putting widows on the list for support relate only to Christian character or marks of maturity; they have nothing to do with position, power, or wealth.
Perhaps an illustration will help:
A Chicago bank once asked for a letter of recommendation on a young Bostonian being considered for employment.
The Boston investment house could not say enough about the young man. His father, they wrote, was a Cabot; his mother was a Lowell. Further back was a happy blend of Saltonstalls, Peabodys, and others of Boston’s finest families. His recommendation was given without hesitation.
Several days later, the Chicago bank sent a note saying the information supplied was altogether inadequate. It read: “We are not contemplating using the young man for breeding purposes. Just for work.”39
As we think about Elisha’s question, “What shall I do for you?,” we need to remember that Elisha was no ordinary prophet because of his many miracles. In a very unique way, he represented the person, power, and care of God. The widow, as the wife of one of the prophets under Elisha’s ministry, must have been familiar with what God had been doing through the prophet Elisha. In essence, then, she was seeking God’s provision through the prophet.
In those dark days of apostasy, God had acted powerfully first in Elijah and then in Elisha to authenticate His covenant care of Israel and the nation’s special purpose in the plan of God. When Elisha asked, “What shall I do for you?,” he was in essence saying, what do you want God to do for you through me? This question reminds us of James’ warning, “you do not have because you do not ask” (Jam. 4:2). Of course, it is also true that often we do not have because we ask with selfish motives that are based on self-centered living (Jam. 4:3).
There is no question that one of our great failures is our failure in prayer. Though we are always to ask according to the will of God and godly motives, we are still commanded to take our needs to the Lord and to entreat others to pray for us.
John 14:13. And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
Matthew 21:22. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.
John 15:7. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.
Matthew 7:7-11. Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened. 9 Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? 11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!
Ephesians 6:18-19. With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, 19 and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.
God wants us to come to Him as His children and in faith, with His glory always in view, to ask for our needs according to the will of God. Too often we either take Him for granted or act as though He does not care.
Interestingly, Elisha did not wait for an answer, at least one is not recorded. Why? Well, because her needs were obvious and she had already come to him and declared her problem which also indicated her request--income to pay off her financial obligation and save her sons from slavery. I am reminded of Matthew 6:8 and 32. God knows our needs before we ask; in fact, He has known them from all eternity. Then why do we need to ask? Because it causes us to be dependent on Him; it demonstrates our faith and demonstrates that it is He who ultimately meets our needs.
In verse two Elisha says, “Tell me, what do you have . . . nothing except a jar of oil.” Oil was a very important commodity; it was like money or gold. Oil is often a picture or type of the Holy Spirit inasmuch as the Old Testament practice of anointing priests and kings served as a type of the ministry of the Spirit. Oil as a type of the Spirit is clearly in view in Zechariah 4 where the constant flow of oil from the lampstand depicted the constant flow of God’s power and is interpreted as such by the words, “not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit” in verse 6. But that does not seem to be the emphasis here. Rather, the focus in this passage is on the way the Lord takes what He has given us like our talents, gifts, physical abilities, financial provisions and multiplies them if we have faith to trust Him to take what we have and multiply it.
She was so destitute, that the only thing she had was this oil, which was used for anointing the body or for cooking--or she may have been saving it for her burial. But there is a principle here which we find repeated in Scripture: the way God generally meets our needs is to take what we have and to multiply it as we turn our lives over to Him and obey the principles of His Word. This is true of our talents, gifts, finances, or physical assets.
We need to investigate what we have in all areas and then, using those blessings as good stewards of God’s grace, however small they may seem, surrender them to the Lord and trust the Lord to bless and provide as He sees fit. Compare Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-15) and the Lord with the loaves and fish (Mark 6:30-44).
But many today want to win the sweepstakes or lottery rather than have to trust God with whatever He has allotted them. Sometimes God does supply from places unknown and in ways beyond our imagination. But our responsibility is to take what we have no matter how small or large and turn it over to Him.
In verse 3 the widow was told to go and borrow “empty vessels.” Full vessels are heavy to carry, but that’s not the point is it? God can’t or will not put anything into full vessels without at least emptying the vessels first. As long as there were empty vessels there was God’s supply to fill them with the oil. The oil only stopped flowing when there were no more empty vessels to fill.
There are some important lessons for us here:
(1) The number of empty vessels brought into the house showed the woman’s faith, obedience, and her submission to God and His promise to her through the prophet.
(2) If we find that the supply of God stops, then either the need has been supplied according to His will, or there are no more empty vessels. If she had brought only a few, that would suggest there was insufficient faith, obedience or submission to God as her sovereign Lord and supplier of her need.
Note that she was not requested to gather a specific number of vessels; God wanted her to act in faith. For this reason Elisha warned, “do not get a few.” In other words, bring as many as you have faith that God will fill. Through the prophet, God was telling her (and us), “Believe me for your total need. Don’t skimp on my ability and willingness to do super abundantly to meet your need” (Eph. 3:20-21). “The limitation was not in the supply of oil but in the lack of empty vessels to be filled. We can always come in faith to God’s abundance of grace with our empty vessels to receive of His fullness of grace.”40
(3) God’s supply would be (and was) as large as her faith and obedience, without greediness. The moment we become greedy and selfish in our request, we not only stop the flow of God’s provision (Jam. 4:3), but we end up going in circles like a dog chasing his tail.
A man in Dallas had a Rolls Royce with an expensive phone in it. His friend in Houston saw it and decided he too should have such a beautiful car with his own private phone. So he saved for a year and finally accumulated enough to get his expensive car with his own private phone. Immediately, he called his friend in Dallas and said, “Bob, this is Bill in Houston calling from my Rolls Royce.” Bob then replied, “Hi Bill, can you hold a minute? One of my other car phones is ringing.”
The widow woman was to consider all of her needs--her debts, living expenses, ministry--and then act in faith accordingly, but without a spirit of greediness which, for one thing, would demonstrate, not faith in the Lord, but in what He supplied. Do I seek God, the Giver because I want to know Him, or do I seek the gifts God gives as though He were simply my genie?
A little girl accompanied her mother to the country store where, after the mother had made a purchase, the clerk invited the child to help herself to a handful of candy. The youngster held back. “What’s the matter? Don’t you like candy?” asked the clerk. The child nodded, and smilingly, the clerk put his hand into the jar and dropped a generous portion into the little girls’ handbag.
Afterward the mother asked her daughter why she had not taken the candy when the clerk first offered some to her. “Because his hand was bigger than mine,” replied the little girl.
I believe this godly woman brought vessels sufficient for her needs and stopped before greed took over. The amount of vessels was limited by the size of her room. God has promised to meet our need, but not our greed. But I wonder what I would have done? Would I have gone out and borrowed and borrowed until my whole house and yard was full?
“And you shall go in and shut the door behind you . . .” (vs. 4). The closed door suggests the principle of privacy. What she did was to be done without distractions so she and her sons could focus on the Lord and set their hearts upon Him in faith. To be alone with God is one of the vital needs of any believer in any time, but it is especially true in the days in which we live with all the noise and extreme busyness. One of the reasons we often do not see God multiplying our gifts and abilities is because we fail to get alone with Him individually and corporately to call upon Him and to focus our hearts upon His grace and supply.
Furthermore, Elisha’s absence when the miracle took place would demonstrate that the power came from God alone, not Elisha. This was certainly designed to encourage her to greater faith and dependence on the Lord. Devout faith and obedience produces an abundance of spiritual blessings.
These verses draw our attention to the nature of God’s person as powerful, loving, gracious, merciful, and like a Father to His children--they display the goodness of the Lord. He is the Father of the orphan, the friend of the widow, the Shepherd of the sheep, and the Protector of His undershepherds and their families (cf. Psalm 145:14ff).
Elisha was a man who had a heart for serving others whether wealthy or poor. He did not minister to people based on how they might promote him or provide for him. He was only concerned that people might know and experience God’s grace and power in their lives. How available am I to do the same?
Like the poor widow, we all have certain needs--spiritual, emotional, and physical, but God knows those needs completely and He cares about them personally. Our most fundamental need is to come to him in faith, but with empty vessels that He might multiply our lives according to His purposes. While trusting Him to meet our need and never our greed, let us come not with just a few vessels. In other words, let’s not limit our loving and gracious God by our lack of faith and obedience to Him. He is the One who is able to do superabundantly above all we ask or think, but He has promised to do as the Psalmist said, in due season, in His own timing according to His perfect understanding.
Local bodies of believers have many needs--both spiritual and physical, both large and small. We live in a world which is basically antagonistic to the work of God, but the problem we face is not in God’s supply of the oil or in people’s ability to meet needs. The real problem lies in our faith, in our obedience and submission corporately and individually.
Please note the emphasis here: As earthen vessels, we must empty ourselves of wrong mental attitudes, priorities, pursuits, or goals, and present ourselves as vessels of God to be filled (controlled) by the word and the Spirit of God. If our lives are cluttered with bad mental attitudes, with grumbling, with selfishness, preoccupation with the things of the world and there is indifference to God’s work, God may stop the supply of oil. And one reason the supply is stopped is that believers stop coming to Him. Carnal believers do not seek the cause of God and the supply of God, they are too caught up with their own world.
I believe this must begin with an evaluation of our own stewardship of giving, believing God that our giving will not be our lack. This means evaluating our own use of the funds God has allowed us to have. We need to begin with the oil we have individually and corporately.
But this also means in addition to our own financial responsibilities with the oil we have, looking to God to supply from other sources according to the wealth of His might, if that is what is needed. We must not turn this around and ignore the responsibility we have with our resources. It is our responsibility to ask God to multiply those resources for the purpose of greater giving and not simply pray for a miracle. In other words, we can’t simply pray for God to supply the oil, and ignore our responsibility to use the oil we have. We must first take the oil we have, trust God to multiply it, and then as the Lord supplies, not only pay our debts, and expenses, but give unto the Lord a return on His investment in us.
Remember, the oil was a very valuable commodity and stands for the valuable resources God has given us whether talents, spiritual gifts, physical abilities, or financial blessings, etc. Let us not limit the Lord. Let’s believe God. Let’s bring empty vessels, and not a few.
38 Servitude as a means of debt payment by labor was permitted in the Mosaic law (Ex. 21:1-2; Lev. 25:39-41; Dt. 15:1-11). It appears that the practice was much abused (see Ne. 5:5, 8; Am. 2:6; 8:6), even though the law limited the term of such bondage and required that those so held be treated as hired workers (NIV Study Bible, p. 528).