The Death and Resurrection of the Widow’s Son (1 Kings 17:17-24)
After the day the Prophet made his proclamation before King Ahab, Elijah’s work and ministry was dramatically changed. He had been removed from what he thought was his primary calling as a prophet of the Lord and was sent to minister to a poor widow and her son outside the land of Israel. This woman was a widow, not just poor, but destitute, and probably without a real knowledge of the Lord. She was ready to eat her last meal with her son and then die of starvation.
Instead, into this woman’s life comes the prophet Elijah and her life takes on a sudden and dramatic change. Instead of physical starvation and death there is now food and life provided daily by a miracle of God. How exciting it must have been to live with such a daily miraculous supply, just as the prophet had promised, until rain according to the Word of the Lord God of Israel (1 Kgs. 17:14, 16). In place of having no testimony of the living God, there was in her home a man of God with the knowledge of God who surely taught her and her son about Yahweh, the God of Israel. Rather than spiritual starvation and death, there was the opportunity to feed on the truth of God. Some see this symbolized in the flour and oil mixed together and baked in an oven picturing the person and work of Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
We have the privilege of feeding on the miracle of God’s daily provision as we likewise feed on the living Word (Christ) in the written Word (the Bible) which is our Bread of Life. With the universal indwelling of the Spirit of God in believers during the church age, we may also experience daily His work and ministry. Furthermore, we can also experience God’s daily supply of our physical needs. Just as Elijah promised the bowl of flour would not be exhausted, so we have the promise, “my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).
How well are we handling God’s daily supply? Are we presuming on the Lord or taking Him for granted? Are we growing in our walk with Him? Is He our source of trust and joy or is it in the supply--in what we get from Him? I don’t mean just in the food on the table, but even in our spiritual experiences with God? It seems some people must have incredible experiences, little daily miracles, for God to be real or for them to see God working in their lives. That’s not spiritually healthy. Let’s look at what happens next to see what we can learn!
Removal of Life From the Son
“Now it came about . . .” (Cf. 1 Kgs. 17:17 with 18, 20 and Heb. 11:35)
First, with these words the text introduces us to a tragic turn of events in the life of the widow--the very one to whom Elijah was sent to minister. It’s an event that affected both the widow and the Prophet. That’s the way life is. Suffering affects all of us--or should. Your suffering may not be directly mine, but God has called us to be ready to minister and be there for one another.
Second, this sudden turn of events, the death of the son, was not by accident. While we have accidents, we stumble, we fall, we can drive out in front of an on-coming automobile because we are preoccupied, etc., still, from God’s perspective there are no accidents in the life of a believer or with anyone for that matter. What happened here was the result of the sovereign will and purpose of God who works all things together for good. It is so comforting to know that with God, the One who is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, infinite, and faithful, there are no surprises. God knows all the situations and trials of life and has from all eternity. In fact, He has decreed to bring them to pass or to allow them.
How, then, should this knowledge affect us? Well, that’s precisely the point of this passage. Compare Psalm 138:8 with 139:1-12. Psalm 138:8 concerns God’s purpose for one’s life. The NIV has, “The Lord will fulfill His purpose for me.” What a wonderful truth to undergird our hearts and strengthen our faith as we go through the ups and downs of life.
“Now it came about after these things.” After what things? Let’s not miss this! The death of the widow’s son occurred after the blessings and miraculous daily provisions mentioned in the above verses. His death occurred after the appearance of the prophet to help the widow. After the faith and response of the woman. And after the continuous miraculous supply of the flour and the oil by which they were all sustained and which were symbolic of God’s spiritual provision. In other words, after everything seemed to be okay, God placed a bend, a turn in the road.
How was the woman to deal with this? Indeed, how would we deal with this? Here God had miraculously supplied her needs and kept both her and her son alive. Now, suddenly, her son dies. Can you imagine what her thoughts were? Probably something like, “I don’t understand this, God! You provided all of these blessings, and now you take away my son?” In itself, this doesn’t seem to make sense. It doesn’t seem fair. Have you ever felt like this? Of course, and you will feel like this again.
Quite unexpectedly, in the midst of a period of God’s supply and relative ease and quiet, disaster strikes. The widow’s son is taken sick and actually dies--with the prophet of the living God living right in her home! Elijah had most likely been teaching this lady and her son the truth of God. She, however, like so many people today, may have been more interested in the physical blessings, in the interesting elements of the spiritual nourishment and in the daily miracle than in really getting to know God. The Lord, however, was more concerned that she get to know Him because He was her real need (cf. John 6:23-27; Matt. 12:38-39; 16:1-4).
As we experience God’s blessing and provision, especially after some kind of test or trial, there is always a subtle temptation for us to think we have passed the test and everything is going to be easier from now on. The worst is past. The storm is over. From here on it’s going to be s m o o t h sailing. But such an attitude ignores some basic truth:
(1) This world is not Eden nor the millennium. We should never expect from life in a fallen world what it simply cannot give and is not designed to give. We live in a fallen world where sin and Satan are ever active and where even nature, God’s own creation, groans under the curse of the fall. An earthquake, for instance, is but one of the groanings of a world that has been cursed because of sin (Rom. 8:18-22). God wants us to long for the joys of eternity. In fact, it is this focus and hope of eternity which is to lighten the burdens of this life (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16-18).
(2) We tend to forget the necessity of suffering with the many reasons for suffering that we find set forth in the Scripture. The Lord knows that it is simply not good for us to float along without times of testing because so often we can’t seem to stand prosperity. We so easily become independent and self-centered. With prosperity comes the temptation to forget the Lord. We live to see the miracle or to be comfortable, rather than to know God and grow in His character. Note the warnings of Deuteronomy 6:10-13 and the repeated warnings against forgetting or the call to remember (Against forgetting: Deut. 4:9, 23, 31; 6:12; 8:11, 14, 19; 9:7; 25:19; To remember: 4:10; 5:15; 7:18; 8:2, 18; 9:7, 27; 15:15).
(3) We treat the tests of life as something foreign and strange. Either we forget or we ignore both the Lord’s warning and Peter’s that we should never be surprised by trials nor think them strange (John 15:18; 16:33; 1 Pet. 4:12). Peter reminds us that trials are sometimes necessary.
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; (1 Peter 1:6-7)
One evening I received a call from an old friend. I had previously counseled him regarding his marriage to which he responded and things really turned around for them. But just as this dear couple began to experience some wonderful improvement in their marriage, he was fired and it was apparently not his fault at all. Life is filled with similar stories. Though life is full of pain we often live our lives oblivious to it, but we are always only separated from it by a thin membrane which can break in on us suddenly and without warning.
The Reaction of the Widow
It is interesting to note the definite change in attitude between 1 Kings 17:18 (bitterness) and verse 24 (faith and confidence). What brought about this change? It came through experiencing God in her life in her suffering. Her reaction and words in verse 18 show her focus and the way she was thinking. It suggests three problems with her thinking and her faith or her relationship with God that needed to be transformed.
The First Problem With Her Thinking
It appears she thought that with the prophet in her home she was immune to problems. A lot of people think like this and they are helped in their thinking by the prosperity gospel that we hear from a number of radio and tele-evangelists. Some people think if they do the right things, follow the right principles, listen to the Bible, live around other Christians--life will flow along smoothly. But such an attitude is usually void of developing any real relationship with God wherein God alone becomes the sole source of strength and joy.
What is the primary good God wants for us? I believe it is Christlikeness. He is committed to transforming our lives into the image and likeness of His Son (Rom. 8:28-29). But due to our proneness to wander, our tendency to live independently of Him and manage our own lives, God must sometimes orchestrate suffering or pain. This is illustrated in the pictures of the Vine Dresser (John 15) and that of a father who disciplines or trains his children (Heb. 12:5f).
Even though the Lord has richly blessed us in Christ, and though He may meet our needs in marvelous ways, it never means we are immune to trials down the road or around the next corner. He knows our hearts and the hearts of those around us. He certainly, therefore, knows what we all need. The fact and presence of trials never means God has removed His grace and love. If anything, as the biblical analogy of God as our heavenly Father and Vine Dresser illustrates, it is the evidence of His love and faithful care. It proves He is at work preparing us for heaven and using us in His plan even now (Rom. 8:28-29; John 15:2; Phil. 1:6; Heb. 12:5f).
As the One who knows our hearts better than we ourselves, God must often engineer suffering, or allow it after times of great blessing, because it is necessary for one or more obvious reasons: (a) We may begin to take Him for granted, to presume on Him. We can begin to treat the Lord as though He owed us something. (b) Or we may begin to live for His blessings (like the flour and the oil of this story) rather than for Him. We become occupied and caught up with the blessings rather than the Blessor. (c) In the process of all this, we may begin to live independently, seeking our happiness, security, and joy from other sources.
The Second Problem With Her Thinking
Her reaction and words to Elijah suggest another aspect of her thinking which is so common. She felt guilt and thought perhaps she was to blame for the child’s death. Because she did not understand what the Scripture teaches about suffering, she may have thought all suffering was caused by sin. Perhaps there were some skeletons in her closet. Surely the question, “What do I have to do with you, O man of God?” followed by the statement, “You have come to me to bring my iniquity to remembrance, and to put my son to death!” most likely means something like: “What have I done to displease you or your God.” “What did I do to deserve this?” “Why has your God done this? Haven’t I given you shelter?”
People tend to see suffering either as a product of random, meaningless pain, or as caused by some sin. This results in living in a world of guilt and fear. Yes, sometimes suffering is discipline or because we have broken the principles of Scripture. In other words, it is often self-induced misery, but this is only one of the several causes of suffering or trials.
The Third Problem With Her Thinking
Because her eyes were not on the Lord, because her expectations were wrong, and because she felt guilty thinking maybe she was to blame in some way, her guilt and pain took the form of despair, anger or resentment, and then blame. She took the downward process. Pain is never wrong. It is only natural and God expects and allows us to feel pain. The problem comes when we allow our pain to twist and deform us and cause us to react rather than respond to what God is seeking to do in us or in others.
How typical and how ironic. When things take a turn we aren’t expecting, rather than looking up to the Lord to draw upon His resources and learn what He is seeking to teach us, we so often take out our anger on the very person or persons whom God has used to bless and minister to our lives.
Phillips Brooks once said, “O, do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle.”
(1) In the pictures of the ancient Roman method of threshing grain, one man is always seen stirring up the sheaves while another rides over them in a crude cart equipped with rollers instead of wheels. Sharp stones and rough bits of iron were attached to these cylinders to help separate the husks from the grain. This simple cart was called a tribulum--from which we get our word “tribulation.” When great affliction comes to us, we often think of ourselves as being torn to pieces under the cruel pressures of adverse circumstances. Yet as no thresher ever yoked up his tribulum for the mere purpose of tearing up his sheaves but to disclose the precious grain, or remove the chaff from the grain, so our loving Savior never puts us under the pressure of sorrow and disappointment needlessly.
(2) The Scriptures exhorts us to be filled with the Spirit and by the Spirit’s strength to be filled with the fruit of the Spirit--various godly virtues. How do we know if we are “full of goodness” (Rom. 15:14) or “full of faith,” for example? Think a moment about a water-saturated sponge. If we put even slight pressure on the sponge water runs out. We immediately know what fills the sponge. The same is true with us. We can tell what fills us on the inside by what comes out under pressure.
The Response of Elijah
Why didn’t Elijah call on the Lord to heal the child before he died? Had Elijah been away a day or so only to arrive to find the child dead? Or was this like the healing of the man blind from birth whom Jesus healed “that the works of God might be displayed” (John 9:1-3), or like the raising of Lazarus in John 11? Remember what the Lord told the disciples before hand? He said, “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him” (John 11:14-15).
Our need is to learn to see the problems of life and the sudden intrusions of pain on our world from the standpoint of the Almighty and His purpose in our lives. Though her tone was somewhat caustic, it is important to see that Elijah did not react to what she said. Rather he responded with positive compassion and action. Let’s note what he did:
(1) He did not take this personally. He had compassion for her hurt. He knew her need was to know the Lord and believe His Word. He put her spiritual and emotional needs above his own longings for appreciation (Phil. 2:3-4).
(2) He was secure in the Lord. He sought his sense of significance, his security, and his joy in the Lord, and not in the responses of people. He wasn’t seeking to defend his turf as a prophet (John 13:1f; 1 Cor. 4:1-5).
(3) Because he was secure through his relationship with the Lord, he didn’t give excuses or turn to defense tactics with the woman. Instead, he reached out to her need and then took the matter directly to the Lord. He knew he was there to minister and that the Lord was in charge, in control, and working out His purposes (Mark 10:41-45).
To show that this was so with Elijah, note verse 20a: “O LORD, my God.” He rested his needs in God and concentrated on this woman’s plight rather than her retort. (a) With the words “O LORD” he was fervently reaching out to God, but as Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, the independent and sovereign God and the God of revelation and redemption. By this title, he showed he had a true knowledge of God and stood in a covenant relationship with Him. (b) With the words “my God” he was acting from his own personal relationship, trusting in the power and multiplicity of God’s character as Elohim of the Old Testament.
The Request of the Prophet
His question, “Hast Thou also brought calamity . . .” expresses his knowledge of God’s sovereignty over all that happens in life, but the fact he connected this death with his presence in the home of the widow suggests the realization of some special purpose of God for him in this tragedy. He was focusing on the Lord in terms of the revelation of God in Scripture. God had placed another bend in the road and he was considering what God had done and what the Lord might want to do through him. Many of the reasons for suffering apply here.
Based on the widow’s need and that of her son, Elijah takes action and goes to the Lord with the need. But what was he to do? The boy had died. He was dead. No one had ever been raised from the dead before--at least, not in the record of Scripture up to this point. What Elijah did was a first. Here was tremendous faith, but he knew nothing was impossible with the Lord, nothing. Putting it all together, as a prophet of God with the revelation gift of a prophet (a gift I am convinced we do not have today with the completed Canon of the Bible), Elijah knew or believed this is what God wanted him to do. Believing that, he acted on his faith and asked God for the life of the widow’s son.
Why did he stretch himself over the child three times? The text does not tell us, but this was undoubtedly symbolic, in some way, perhaps of his faith, of his willingness to identify himself with this child, and an evidence of his humility. But above all, the repetition with the repeated prayer, reminds us that it is persistence in prayer that often leads to answers to our prayers. It is important to note that it was the prayer of faith--the voice of Elijah crying out to God--and not the symbolic acts that brought about the answer to this prayer. As James tells us in James 5:15, it is the prayer of faith that restores the sick.
The Return of Life to the Son
Can you just imagine the joy and excitement of this event. But will you note Elijah’s words, “See, your son is alive.” It’s like he was saying, “You see, the God of Israel is not only the only true and mighty God with whom nothing is impossible, but He is also loving, forgiving, and merciful.”
Today, our evidence is the resurrection of the Lord Jesus which declares Him to be both God’s eternal Son and the only one who can take away our sin, give us eternal life, and give life abundantly or capacity for real life. (Compare Rom. 1:4; 4:24-25 and note the context of the religious, the moral, and the immoral man.)
At death, the soul and spirit depart and the body begins the process of decay. It is only the body which dies. The immaterial part of man continues either in torments, the abode of the unbelieving dead (Luke 16:22-23), or in paradise, which today is in God’s presence, the abode of those who know the Lord by faith (Luke 16:22; Phil. 1:21; 2 Cor. 5:8). When we speak of faith in Jesus Christ, we are talking about the Bible’s definition of who Jesus Christ is, not the version of groups who redefine Jesus Christ as merely a good man or a special prophet.
For resurrection to occur, two things must happen. (a) The physical body must be rejuvinated even to the point of recreation as when the body has decayed. For our resurrected body of the future, the Apostle calls this the transformation of the body of our humble state, this earthly and perishable body, into conformity with the body of his glory, a glorified resurrection body like the Lord’s. But the resurrection in this passage, like the resurrection of the body of Lazarus, was not a glorified resurrection body. It was a rejuvination to a perishable body that would again die. It required miraculous rejuvenation that reversed the processes of death like decay. (b) The soul and spirit or the immaterial part of man must be reunited with the body, the physical part. Our passage tells us the life (soul) of the child returned to his inward part.
This was a great miracle, a supernatural act which had the fingerprint of God on it since only God has the power of life and death. Miracles are the exception, not the norm, and the miracles of the Bible contain the fingerprint of God. They are completely successful; they are immediate; they can heal any disease or problem, and they give confirmation of God’s messenger and his message. All of these apply here. Thus, what happens next takes us to the goal of the passage and the goal of the Christian life.
Recognition of the Prophet’s Message
Here is one of the major reasons for this incident. Certainly, God was concerned for this widow, but He did not do this for every widow who lost her son. This miracle was designed to teach important truth.
(1) It shows the general purpose of miracles in the Bible. They occurred to confirm God’s messengers and thus God’s message of grace (17:24).
(2) But in the process (by way of application to us) it reminds us again of our purpose and of one of the major purposes for suffering. Suffering gives God an opportunity to manifest His power and the power of His Word through the production of godly character. When we consider fallen humanity, this is a miracle just as great as resurrection. Because of this, Christlikeness is likened to resurrection in the New Testament (Rom. 6).
(3) True godly character, not just external conformity, is always the result of the Word of God in one’s life. It is the work of faith, the result of fellowship with the living God. Godly character, whether in the form of stability in the midst of suffering or in the form of loving ministry in the home, office, with a neighbor or friend, authenticates the message of Jesus Christ. It also demonstrates that we are truly the people of God and we are walking in fellowship and in faith with God who is alive. Godly character is always much more than simply religious conformity to a set of do’s and don’ts. It means the capacity to respond as did Elijah. From the standpoint of the overall lesson of this heroic narrative, this story demonstrates Elijah’s God was the true God. For who but God can bring the dead back to life?