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The Life and Times of Elijah the Prophet— The Prophet and the Pagans (1 Kings 16:29-17:24)

16:29 In the thirty-eighth year of King Asa’s reign over Judah, Omri’s son Ahab became king over Israel. Ahab son of Omri ruled over Israel for 22 years in Samaria. 30 Ahab son of Omri did more evil before the LORD than all who were before him. 31 If following in the sinful footsteps of Jeroboam son of Nebat were not bad enough, he married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians. Then he worshiped and bowed to Baal. 32 He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal he had built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made an Asherah pole; he did more to anger the LORD God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him. 34 During Ahab’s reign, Hiel the Bethelite rebuilt Jericho. Abiram, his firstborn son, died when he laid the foundation; Segub, his youngest son, died when he erected its gates, just as the LORD had warned through Joshua son of Nun.

17:1 Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As certainly as the LORD God of Israel lives (whom I serve), there will be no dew or rain in the years ahead unless I give the command.” 2 The LORD told him: 3 “Leave here and travel eastward. Hide out in the Kerith Valley near the Jordan. 4 Drink from the stream; I have already told the ravens to bring you food there.” 5 So he did as the LORD told him; he went and lived in the Kerith Valley near the Jordan. 6 The ravens would bring him bread and meat each morning and evening, and he would drink from the stream.

7 After awhile, the stream dried up because there had been no rain in the land. 8 The LORD told him, 9 “Get up, go to Zarephath in Sidonian territory, and live there. I have already told a widow who lives there to provide for you.” 10 So he got up and went to Zarephath. When he went through the city gate, there was a widow gathering wood. He called out to her, “Please give me a cup of water, so I can take a drink.” 11 As she went to get it, he called out to her, “Please bring me a piece of bread.” 12 She said, “As certainly as the LORD your God lives, I have no food, except for a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. Right now I am gathering a couple sticks for a fire. Then I’m going home to make one final meal for my son and myself. After we have eaten that, we will die of starvation.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go and do as you planned. But first make a small cake for me and bring it to me; then make something for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the LORD God of Israel says, ‘The jar of flour will not be empty and the jug of oil will not run out until the day the LORD makes it rain on the surface of the ground.’” 15 She went and did as Elijah told her; there was always enough food for Elijah and for her and her family. 16 The jar of flour was never empty and the jug of oil never ran out, just as the LORD had promised through Elijah.

17 After this the son of the woman who owned the house got sick. His illness was so severe he could no longer breathe. 18 She asked Elijah, “Why, prophet, have you come to me to confront me with my sin and kill my son?” 19 He said to her, “Hand me your son.” He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him down on his bed. 20 Then he called out to the LORD, “O LORD, my God, are you also bringing disaster on this widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” 21 He stretched out over the boy three times and called out to the LORD, “O LORD, my God, please let this boy’s breath return to him.” 22 The LORD answered Elijah’s prayer; the boy’s breath returned to him and he lived. 23 Elijah took the boy, brought him down from the upper room to the house, and handed him to his mother. Elijah then said, “See, your son is alive!” 24 The woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a prophet and that the LORD really does speak through you.”

Introduction

At this point in our study of the Old Testament prophets, we come to the life and times of the prophet Elijah. We would probably agree with J. Sidlow Baxter’s appraisal of Elijah.

“His eminence is seen both in the religious reformation which he wrought, and in the fact that the New Testament speaks of him more often than of any other Old Testament prophet. Moreover, it was he who was chosen to appear with Moses at our Lord’s transfiguration. And further, it is from this point that the ministry of the prophets in the two Hebrew kingdoms becomes more prominently emphasised. One of Israel’s most startling and romantic characters, he suddenly appears on the scene as the crisis-prophet, with thunder on his brow and tempest in his voice. He disappears just as suddenly, swept skywards in a chariot of fire. Between his first appearing and his final disappearing lies a succession of amazing miracles.”52

“Here is the Martin Luther of old-time Israel, who singlehanded challenged the whole priesthood of the state religion, and all the people of the realm, to the decisive test on Mount Carmel.”53

Of all the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament mentions Elijah more than any other. He is the prophet who appeared with Moses at the transfiguration of our Lord. He is a man who appears from out of nowhere, and whose exit from this life is even more fantastic. The appearance of Elijah signals a new era in the history of Israel. Where prophets were few and far between before his time, there are now hundreds of prophets, and even a school of the prophets. Elijah appears at a time when prophets began to play a much more prominent role in the history of Israel.

I suspect there is another reason why Elijah is so popular—he is a man like us, a man with whom we can identify:

Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain and there was no rain on the land for three years and six months! (NET Bible).

Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years (James 5:17, NIV).

Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months (James 5:17, NASB).

Elijah is the “Peter” of the prophets. For me, at least, I find it much harder to identify with Isaiah or Jeremiah than I do with Elijah. Elijah is a prophet who served God, but whose humanity (i.e., his weaknesses) is apparent as he does so.

Background
(1 Kings 16:29-34)

29 In the thirty-eighth year of King Asa’s reign over Judah, Omri’s son Ahab became king over Israel. Ahab son of Omri ruled over Israel for 22 years in Samaria. 30 Ahab son of Omri did more evil before the LORD than all who were before him. 31 If following in the sinful footsteps of Jeroboam son of Nebat were not bad enough, he married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians. Then he worshiped and bowed to Baal. 32 He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal he had built in Samaria. 33 Ahab also made an Asherah pole; he did more to anger the LORD God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him. 34 During Ahab’s reign, Hiel the Bethelite rebuilt Jericho. Abiram, his firstborn son, died when he laid the foundation; Segub, his youngest son, died when he erected its gates, just as the LORD had warned through Joshua son of Nun.

By and large, the life and ministry of Elijah centers around Ahab, the king of Israel, and Jezebel, his foreign wife. If we are to understand the ministry and message of Elijah, we must first understand the times in which he lived. We know very little about Elijah’s past, although we certainly have more information regarding Ahab and those who came before him. Ahab is the seventh king to reign over the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It may be helpful to provide a chart of the early kings of Israel and Judah, so that we can understand where Ahab fits in the history of his nation.

United Kingdom

Saul

David

Solomon

Divided Kingdom: Israel and Judah

    Judah

     

    Northern Kingdom (Israel)

    Rehoboam

    Abijah

    17 years

    3 years

     

    Jeroboam

    Nadab

    22 years

    2 years

    Asa

    41 years

     

    Baasha

    Elah

    Zimri

    24 years

    2 years

    1 week

    Jehoshaphat

    25 years

       

    Omri

    Ahab

    Ahaziah

    12 years

    22 years

    2 years

     

    Jehoram

    8 years

     

    Jahoram

    Jehu

    12 years

    28 years

At the insistence of the Israelites, the United Kingdom commenced with the appointment of Saul as the first king of Israel. Under Saul’s leadership, Israel won significant victories over the Ammonites (in the freeing of Jabesh Gilead) and the Amalekites (although Saul let King Agag live). The Philistines were posing a very real threat to Israel, and it was David who emerged in this conflict, commencing with his defeat of Goliath. It was at the hands of the Philistines that King Saul and his son Jonathan died in battle. It was David who firmly established the kingdom and expanded its borders by subduing the surrounding nations. Solomon further consolidated the kingdom, but in the latter days of his reign Solomon began to marry foreign wives and to facilitate their worship of foreign gods, even participating with them. For this reason, God informed Solomon that his kingdom would be divided, but not until after his death (1 Kings 11:1-13). After Solomon’s death, God’s word was fulfilled as Jeroboam led the ten tribes in rebellion against the dynasty of David. From this point on, we read of the Northern Kingdom, or Israel, and of the Southern Kingdom, Judah. All of the Northern Kingdom’s kings were wicked, but Ahab has the distinction of being the most wicked king of all (1 Kings 16:30, 33; 21:25-26). Ahab was the second king in the dynasty of Omri. His father was Omri, who ruled for 12 years, and after Ahab’s death his son, Ahaziah, ruled 2 years. Ahab was on the throne for 22 years. Although Ahab surpassed all those who came before him in wickedness, we must not forget that he repents in 1 Kings 21:27ff.

Ahab’s downfall seems to have begun with his marriage to Jezebel, the daughter of a Sidonian king named Ethbaal (1 Kings 16:31).54 Here was a woman who seemed to drive Ahab to greater depths of evil, and when this man was incapable of handling the matter himself, she did not hesitate to take over (see 1 Kings 21:4-16). Together with his wife Jezebel, Ahab re-introduces the worship of Baal and the Asherah to Israel (16:31-33; see 1 Kings 11:1-8). At first, it would seem as though Jezebel and Ahab were content with religious pluralism. Israelites could worship Yahweh, or Baal, or both. It is this kind of pluralism we see in America today. The one thing that is intolerable is to make any exclusive claims regarding one’s faith or one’s “god.” To think your religion is a way to God is fine; to say your religion is the way to God is intolerable.

But as one can see, pluralism was not good enough for Jezebel. She was not content for Israel to have the option of serving whatever God or gods they chose; she wanted the worship of Yahweh eliminated. Its “unpardonable sin” was its exclusiveness. Israel’s God was God alone, and to serve Yahweh, one must serve no other gods. And so Jezebel began to systematically kill off the prophets of Yahweh. Had it not been for divine intervention (sometimes implemented through human means like Obadiah—see 18:4, 13), it would appear that she would have succeeded.

The author of 1 Kings adds a very interesting historical note in verse 34, which some think is out of place:

During Ahab’s reign, Hiel the Bethelite rebuilt Jericho. Abiram, his firstborn son, died when he laid the foundation; Segub, his youngest son, died when he erected its gates, just as the LORD had warned through Joshua son of Nun.

I disagree. During Ahab’s reign, and thus under Ahab’s orders, the city of Jericho was rebuilt by Hiel, the Bethelite. In the course of this construction, Kiel’s first sin was killed when the foundation was laid. Kiel’s youngest son died as the city gates were being erected. The author’s point is to let the reader know this happened in fulfillment of the words of prophecy Joshua uttered centuries earlier:

At that time Joshua made this solemn declaration: “The man who attempts to rebuild this city of Jericho will stand condemned before the LORD. He will lose his firstborn son when he lays its foundations and his youngest son when he erects its gates” (Joshua 6:26).

I believe 1 Kings 16:34 is a very solemn reminder of the reliability of the Word of God. Does God’s Word say that a man’s oldest and youngest sons will die when he seeks to rebuild Jericho? Then it will happen! But this also applies to all of God’s other promises, and all of His warnings. The exchange which takes place between Ahab and God’s prophets will be ample proof of this. It is too bad that Ahab could not have learned his lesson sooner, from the tragedy in Kiel’s family.

Elijah’s Word to Ahab
(1 Kings 17:1)

Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As certainly as the LORD God of Israel lives (whom I serve), there will be no dew or rain in the years ahead unless I give the command.”

Elijah is something like Melchizedek (see Genesis 14:18-20), in that he seems to appear out of nowhere. We know only that he is “from Tishbe in Gilead.” We are not even certain where this town was located. Elijah either appears before Ahab or sends word to him, but the message is simple: “As certainly as the LORD God of Israel lives (whom I serve), there will be no dew or rain in the years ahead unless I give the command” (verse 1). The prophet speaks in the name of Yahweh, the God of Israel. By His authority, Elijah announces that there will be no more rain until he gives the command.

Elijah’s proclamation is a clear challenge to Baal, whom both Jezebel and Ahab serve:

“Baalism existed as a religion for several centuries in various ancient Near Eastern countries. Its prominence in Canaan and Phoenicia is especially important for understanding 1, 2 Kings, since it is from those cultures that the major influence on Israel and Judah came. M. Smith concludes that ‘the Phoenician baal of Ahab and Jezebel was a storm-god. The extrabiblical evidence indicates that the baal of Carmel and Baal Shamem were also storm gods.’ Thus, Baal worshipers believed that their god made rain, which is a quite important detail in an agricultural community. Elijah apparently prays for a drought to prove that Yahweh, not Baal, is in charge of crop-enriching rains.”55

“Why choose a drought? Why emphasize that Yahweh lives? Elijah determines to attack Baalism at its theological center. Baal worshipers believed that their storm god made rain, unless, of course, it was the dry season and he needed to be brought back from the dead. To refute this belief Elijah states that Yahweh is the one who determines when rain falls, that Yahweh lives at all times, and that Yahweh is not afraid to challenge Baal on what his worshippers consider his home ground.”56

Elijah’s declaration not only challenges the false gods that Israel worshipped; it also challenges the false prophets of Baal and the Asherah. Are there 850 prophets in Israel, 450 who are prophets of Baal, and 400 of whom are prophets of Asherah? Elijah is the prophet of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Do these prophets claim to represent their gods, and to speak with authority on their behalf? Then let them prove it now. This challenge also puts Elijah’s authority and credibility on the line. Before Elijah can call for repentance, he must first demonstrate that Yahweh is “in charge” and that he is His prophet. This is in keeping with the Old Testament law:

20 But the prophet who will presume to speak anything in my name that I have not authorized him to speak or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet must die. 21 Or if you say to yourselves, how can we know what the LORD has not spoken? 22 Whenever a given prophet speaks in my name and the thing is not fulfilled, then I have not spoken it; the prophet has presumed to speak it so you need not fear him” (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).

Elijah’s claim that it will not rain without his command is the test. If Elijah’s words can stop the rains, then the Israelites had better listen carefully to what he has to say, for it will be God speaking through him. On the other hand, Elijah is claiming the authority to do what it was believed Baal controlled—the weather. Thus, we have a contest. Either God controls the rain, and Elijah is His spokesman, or Baal controls the rain, and his prophets speak for him, with authority.

A Time for Hiding
(1 Kings 17:2-7)

2 The LORD told him: 3 “Leave here and travel eastward. Hide out in the Kerith Valley near the Jordan. 4 Drink from the stream; I have already told the ravens to bring you food there.” 5 So he did as the LORD told him; he went and lived in the Kerith Valley near the Jordan. 6 The ravens would bring him bread and meat each morning and evening, and he would drink from the stream. 7 After awhile, the stream dried up because there had been no rain in the land.

Elijah is commanded to leave, and to “hide out in the Kerith Valley near the Jordan” (verse 2). The waters from the brook Cherith will provide him with drink, and the ravens will bring bread and meat morning and evening. The ravens have been given their orders from God (verse 4). Israel and her king may not pay attention to God’s Word, but the unclean ravens do His bidding.

One might wonder why God instructed Elijah to hide. There had to be sufficient time for Israel to observe that God had indeed brought a drought upon the land of Israel. There is little for Elijah to do or say until his authority as a prophet of Yahweh has been established. Thus, he must stay out of sight until the drought is acknowledged and Elijah is credited with bringing it about. As this becomes indisputably clear, there will be increased hostility toward Elijah and efforts to seize him will intensify.

I think there is another purpose for this three-and-one-half year period of hiding. This appears to be the commencement of Elijah’s public ministry. It is important for this prophet to be deeply convinced of God’s ability to provide for his every need, both for his daily provisions, and for his protection. God is using this quiet time in Elijah’s life to teach him to “trust and obey.” This is a time when Elijah’s faith is deepened. And there is a final purpose for this period of hiding—it is a time when God will bring salvation to the Gentiles. This we shall see in the following verses.

The Gentile Widow of Zarephath
(1 Kings 17:8-16)

8 The LORD told him, 9 “Get up, go to Zarephath in Sidonian territory, and live there. I have already told a widow who lives there to provide for you.” 10 So he got up and went to Zarephath. When he went through the city gate, there was a widow gathering wood. He called out to her, “Please give me a cup of water, so I can take a drink.” 11 As she went to get it, he called out to her, “Please bring me a piece of bread.” 12 She said, “As certainly as the LORD your God lives,57 I have no food, except for a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. Right now I am gathering a couple sticks for a fire. Then I’m going home to make one final meal for my son and myself. After we have eaten that, we will die of starvation.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go and do as you planned. But first make a small cake for me and bring it to me; then make something for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the LORD God of Israel says, ‘The jar of flour will not be empty and the jug of oil will not run out until the day the LORD makes it rain on the surface of the ground.’” 15 She went and did as Elijah told her; there was always enough food for Elijah and for her and her family. 16 The jar of flour was never empty and the jug of oil never ran out, just as the LORD had promised through Elijah.

As the drought lingered on, the brook Cherith finally dried up. It was time for Elijah to change his hideout. He was given very clear directions as to where he should stay next. He was instructed to go to Zarephath, with the assurance that God had a widow there whom He had commanded to provide for him. I do not believe that this woman necessarily received an audible command from God, but God makes it clear once again that He accomplishes what He has purposed and declared. God’s Word is true and trustworthy. His word is never frustrated (empty—Isaiah 55:11).

How interesting that God would send Elijah to Zarephath:

“Zarephath is located in Phoenicia, the very heart of Baalism. Here Yahweh will defeat Baal in his own territory. Here, God’s people will fare better than Baal’s. F. C. Fensham asserts that in fact the main purpose of this narrative is ‘to demonstrate on Phoenician soil, where Baal is worshiped, that Yahweh has power over things in which Baal has failed.’”58

Zarephath is in Sidon, not that far from where Jezebel’s father, the king of Sidon lived, not far from where she had grown up. Zarephath is where the Baal worship of Ahab and Jezebel originated. The Sidonian gods of Phoenicia have the home field advantage. Elijah is on their turf. It was often believed that the gods were territorial. This seems even to be true of Abraham, who feared that God could not protect him outside the promised land (see Genesis 20:11-13). It was true of the Syrians, who thought that Yahweh was the “god of the mountain” while Baal was a “god of the valleys” (1 Kings 20:28). If this were true (which it is not!) then Elijah is taking a huge risk by moving to Zarephath. Who would live there as one who worshipped Yahweh? Who would hide him? You would think that everyone living there would want to turn him over to Ahab. And yet so far as we are told no one laid a hand on him while he was there. The safest place in the world was under Baal’s nose. The safest place in the world was where God told you to be.

As Elijah approached Zarephath, he came upon a widow at the city gate who was gathering up sticks for a fire. Elijah called out to her, asking her for a cup of water. As she went to get the water, Elijah called out with a much more difficult request. Could she also bring him a little bread as well? In the original text, the words seem to refer to a “crumble” or “morsel” of bread. Elijah is not asking for a loaf of bread, or even a sandwich, he asks for something which this woman actually has, and not much more. The issue for the woman, then, is not whether she has it to give, but whether she will do so. She has no excess to share, so she will have to give Elijah that which was for her and her son.

The widow informed Elijah that she was preparing a “last supper” for herself and her son. Though she might wish to share some bread with him, there was only enough flour and oil to make a small serving for herself and her son. When this last bit of her supplies was gone, they would starve. She had nothing to spare.

I don’t think this woman told Elijah anything he didn’t already know. His words put her faith in Yahweh to the test. She responds in a very different fashion than Jezebel (1 Kings 19:2) and Ben Hadad (20:2). The widow’s words, “As certainly as the LORD your God lives… (17:12) are virtually identical to the words spoken later on by Obadiah: “As certainly as the LORD your God lives…” (18:10). I am inclined to believe that this widow was already a believer in Yahweh, or at least one, like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26ff.), whose heart has been prepared to trust in Him. How ironic this would be. A prophet of Yahweh cannot find sanctuary in Israel, but is cared for in a pagan country, by a Gentile widow. Elijah reassures this woman with a “thus saith the Lord” in verse 14: “For this is what the LORD God of Israel says, ‘The jar of flour will not be empty and the jug of oil will not run out until the day the LORD makes it rain on the surface of the ground.’” This woman must give up her life, and the life of her son, in order to save it. And this she does. The woman then prepares food for Elijah, and then for herself and her son. As long as the drought lasted, God provided for her needs. Elijah’s coming to Israel brought judgment; his coming to Zarephath brought salvation.

If I am reading the text correctly, God provides Elijah, the widow, and her son with what is needed on a day-to-day basis. He did not supply a barn full of grain and barrels of oil. Each meal, the woman had to repeat what she did when she served Elijah bread the first time they met. God continued to replenish the small amount of grain and oil each time they were used. God gave them their “daily bread,” not their monthly allotment. Never was the grain completely consumed or the oil container completely emptied. This, we are reminded, took place in fulfillment of the word of the Lord which was spoken by Elijah.

A Resurrection
(1 Kings 17:17-24)

17 After this the son of the woman who owned the house got sick. His illness was so severe he could no longer breathe. 18 She asked Elijah, “Why, prophet, have you come to me to confront me with my sin and kill my son?” 19 He said to her, “Hand me your son.” He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him down on his bed. 20 Then he called out to the LORD, “O LORD, my God, are you also bringing disaster on this widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” 21 He stretched out over the boy three times and called out to the LORD, “O LORD, my God, please let this boy’s breath return to him.” 22 The LORD answered Elijah’s prayer; the boy’s breath returned to him and he lived. 23 Elijah took the boy, brought him down from the upper room to the house, and handed him to his mother. Elijah then said, “See, your son is alive!” 24 The woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a prophet and that the LORD really does speak through you.”

Providing sanctuary for Elijah was the best thing that could have happened to the widow and their son. It was God’s means of saving their lives. They were about to die of starvation when Elijah arrived, and yet God provided for all three for the remainder of the drought and famine. One can imagine the grief of this widow when her son became ill and stopped breathing. To her, it looked like a cruel joke: God saved her son’s life only to take it later on. Her words to Elijah are an admission of her sin, and of her perception that God, through His prophet, had punished the sins of this woman by killing her son. Elijah’s prayer in some ways reiterates the thoughts the widow had just expressed: “O LORD, my God, are you also bringing disaster on this widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” (verse 20, emphasis mine). I am especially curious about that word “also.” It is almost as though Elijah were saying: “Alright, God, I can understand you bringing disaster (this drought and famine, and men seeking my life) on me—that’s my role as a prophet. But did you have to include her in my disaster by taking the life of her son?” It is as though the widow is saying, “It’s my fault; why did he have to suffer?”—while Elijah says, “It is my fault; why did she have to suffer because You killed her son?”

I find it interesting that Elijah, though a prophet, did not completely understand his situation. While he knew things as a prophet that others did not know, he did not know or understand all. I am reminded of this verse in 1 Corinthians 13:9-10: “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside.”

Having made his protest to God, Elijah now makes his petition: “O LORD, my God, please let this boy’s breath return to him” (verse 21). This Elijah said as he stretched himself out on the child three times. There are all kinds of explanations given for Elijah’s actions, but whatever he did, it was God who healed that child and brought him back to life. This was a miracle, and not a common, everyday application of CPR. It would seem quite clear that God’s purpose for all of this agony can be seen in the response of this widow to the raising of her son: “Now I know that you are a prophet and that the LORD really does speak through you” (verse 24).

Is this not the purpose of miracles—to accredit those who are true prophets and to affirm the power of God and His word?

21 Or if you say to yourselves, how can we know what the LORD has not spoken? 22 Whenever a given prophet speaks in my name and the thing is not fulfilled, then I have not spoken it; the prophet has presumed to speak it so you need not fear him” (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).

Indeed, the signs of an apostle were performed among you with great perseverance by signs and wonders and powerful deeds (2 Corinthians 12:12).

1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).

I believe this Gentile woman had faith before her son was healed. As pointed out earlier, her words to Elijah were identical with those of Obadiah, a man whom we know to be a believer. I think she had faith in the God of Elijah, and in Elijah as His prophet. She entrusted her life and that of her son to him. But now, she has “resurrection faith.” It is my contention that saving faith is resurrection faith. It is true for New Testament saints, and it was also true of those believers we find described in the Old Testament:

8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we preach); 9 because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation (Romans 10:8-10).

18 Against hope Abraham believed in hope with the result that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement, “so will your descendants be.” 19 Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do. 22 So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness (Romans 4:18-22).

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he would later receive as an inheritance, and he went out without understanding where he was going. 9 By faith he lived as a foreigner in the promised land as though it were a foreign country, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, who were fellow heirs of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with firm foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was too old, he received the ability to procreate, because he regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy. 12 So in fact children were fathered by one man—and this one as good as dead—like the number of stars in the sky and like the innumerable grains of sand on the seashore (Hebrews 11:8-12).

I’m sure that some may wish to argue this point. They might agree that Abraham did have a resurrection faith. He believed that God could empower the dead bodies (so far as child-bearing) of him and his wife to bear a son. He believed that if he sacrificed his son, God could raise him from the dead. But was this true of all Old Testament saints? I believe it was:

13 These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. 14 For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 In fact, if they had been thinking of the land that they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they aspire to a better land, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. 17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He had received the promises, yet he was ready to offer up his only son. 18 God had told him, “Through Isaac descendants will carry on your name,” 19 and he reasoned that God could even raise him from the dead, and in a sense he received him back from there. 20 By faith also Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning the future. 21 By faith Jacob, as he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph and “worshiped as he leaned on his staff.” 22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, mentioned the exodus of the sons of Israel and gave instructions about his burial (Hebrews 11:13-22).

Every Old Testament saint died in faith, without seeing the fulfillment of the promises of God which they believed by faith. This meant that they were not looking for God’s promises in this life, but in the next. And to live as they did, suffering and dying for their faith, they had to believe in the resurrection, because that was the only way they would ever inherit the promises for which they waited in faith. While I believe that the Gentile widow had faith before this, her faith is now a resurrection faith. Was God being unduly harsh with this woman, as both she and Elijah seemed to think? He was graciously bringing her to the point where her faith was a resurrection faith.

Conclusion

The first purpose of this passage, I believe, is to convince us that Elijah speaks the Word of God, and that God’s Word is always true. Note the prominence of the expressions related to God’s Word:

16:34 “just as the LORD had warned through Joshua son of Nun”

17:1 “unless I give the command”

17:2 “The LORD told him”

17:8 “The LORD told him”

17:9 “I have already told a widow who lives there to provide for you”

17:14 “For this is what the LORD God of Israel says”

17:15 “She went and did as Elijah told her”

17:16 “just as the LORD had promised through Elijah”

17:24 “Now I know that you are a prophet and that the LORD really does speak through you.”

The sins of Israel and of Ahab their king are the result of a disregard for His Word. They were either ignorant of His commands, or they deliberately disobeyed what they knew He required. If and when revival is to come, it will begin with a renewed reverence for the Word of God.

The miracles Elijah performed vindicated his position as a prophet of God and should have caused those who heard him to heed his words. Elijah’s miracles were proof of his authenticity and authority. Those who heeded his words—like the Gentile widow—were saved from death. Those who rejected his words suffered the consequences for their disobedience.

Is this not also true of the person and the works of our Lord Jesus Christ? When He came to this earth, He claimed to have come down from the Father, and to speak for the Father:

“I came from the Father and entered into the world; but in turn, I am leaving the world and going back to the Father” (John 16:28).

41 Then the Jews who were hostile to Jesus began complaining about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” 42 and they started saying, “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:41-42).

Then Jesus said, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and I do nothing on my own initiative, but I speak just what the Father taught me” (John 8:28).

48 “The one who rejects me and does not accept my words has a judge; the word I have spoken will judge him at the last day. 49 For I have not spoken from my own authority, but the Father himself who sent me has commanded me what I should say and what I should speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. Thus the things I say, I say just as the Father has told me” (John 12:48-50).

10 “Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you, I do not speak on my own initiative, but the Father residing in me performs his miraculous deeds. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me; but if you do not believe me, believe because of the miraculous deeds themselves (John 14:10-12).

Jesus claimed to be God. He claimed to have come down to earth from the Father in heaven. He claimed that He would be rejected by men, crucified, and then raised from the dead, after which He would return to the Father in heaven. These were not empty words. Jesus performed many miracles, which vindicated these claims:

30 Now Jesus performed many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples that are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

So the question is this: do you believe these words, which Jesus spoke?

13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” 16 For this is the way God loved the world: he gave his one and only Son that everyone who believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not condemned. The one who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (John 3:13-18).

Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Our text is another early indication of God’s purpose to save Gentiles as well as Jews.

16 Now Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as he customarily did. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him, 21 and he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came out of his mouth. They began to say, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” 23 Jesus said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself! What we have heard that you did at Capernaum, do here in your own hometown too.’” 24 And he added, “I tell you the truth, no prophet is acceptable in his own hometown. 25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s days, when the sky was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine over all the land. 26 Yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to a woman who was a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; yet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all the people in the synagogue were filled with anger. 29 They got up, forced him out of the town, and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But he passed through their midst and went on his way (Luke 4:16-30, underscoring mine).

In Romans 9-11, Paul teaches that God purposed to use the unbelief of the Jewish people as the occasion for proclaiming the gospel to the Gentiles. In the text above, our Lord is making this same point. When Jesus came to his home town of Nazareth and announced that He was the Messiah, people were delighted to hear it. But then Jesus tempered their enthusiasm (here is an understatement!) by informing them that He had come not only to save Jews, but Gentiles also. His Jewish audience was enraged and sought to kill Him. This only served to underscore what Jesus was saying about Jewish unbelief. How grateful you and I (if we are Gentiles) can be for God’s grace toward us.

Last night, the news broke that a madman entered a Fort Worth church auditorium filled with young people, injuring several, killing seven, and then taking his own life. This was a terrible loss for those who lost loved ones. But from what I have heard, all of those killed had a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Knowing this puts the death of these saints in an entirely different light, because we know that those who trust in Jesus Christ immediately enter the presence of God when they die (2 Corinthians 4:6-8; Philippians 1:23-24). Not only do we know that when Christians die they immediately go to heaven, but from our text, we are assured that God will not allow any of His loved ones to die until it is His time for them to “go home.” I am absolutely confident that no madman is able take the life of anyone whom God has purposed to spare, and to continue to use in this life. God’s purpose for those saints who die is to bring them home to Himself. God may use their suffering and death to bring some to faith and others to a deeper commitment. But lest we become timid and fearful as times become more dangerous for Christians, let us remember how God spared the lives of Elijah, the widow, and her son, at a time when Ahab and Jezebel were doing everything they could to locate this prophet and take his life. When I was in seminary, Dr. Stanley Toussaint used to lead us in a song at the beginning of each class, which began, “More secure is no one ever, than the loved ones of the Savior.…” It was true in Elijah’s day, and it is just as true today. Praise God!


52 J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1960), vol. 2, p. 111.

53 Baxter, pp. 111-112.

54 Wiseman points out that Ethbaal means “Baal is alive.” Donald J. Wiseman, 1 and 2 Kings: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, Illinois, U.S.A.; Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), p.162.

55 Paul R. House, 1, 2, Kings (Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995), p. 210. House cites here M. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990) 44.

56 House, p. 213.

57 These words sound like those of a true believer. Was this woman already a believer, before Elijah arrived? If not, she was at least partially informed about who Israel’s God was. If so, then Elijah’s arrival was God’s way of sparing the prophet and at the same time saving His own (which would include the widow, and perhaps her son) from starvation.

58 House, pp. 214-215.

Related Topics: Character Study