Testings and Ministry at Zaraphath (1 Kings 17:8-16)
First Kings 17:8-16 continues God’s testing of the Prophet at a place called Zarephath--which actually means “a smelting place.” But here, another important element is added to the scenario of Elijah’s life as it is recorded for us in Scripture. It’s the element of personal ministry or outreach to others. The testing and needs of the Prophet became a means of ministry to a poor widow and her son. As I have tried to stress throughout this series, the events of our lives, even our everyday and seemingly mundane affairs, are not without importance. They are certainly not without God’s providential care as the One who works all things after the counsel of His own will. But important to this truth of Scripture is the need of God’s people to consider this fact against the varied events of their lives. We must think, trust, and act accordingly. The events of life are tools and agents of the Almighty. He uses these to get our attention, to change our values, character, priorities, pursuits, and above all, to change our sources of trust for security and happiness.
But let’s never lose sight of the fact that the same events that test us often become the means by which God is able to use us in ministry to others. In other words, our trials often become vehicles for ministry, opportunities to manifest the life of Jesus Christ and the reality and power of God (2 Cor. 4:8-15). This is precisely what we see in this next episode in the life of Elijah. His need became a means of meeting needs in the lives of the widow and her son.
Does this not serve to remind us again that we are not here for ourselves, even in our pain and need? God cares for us, but we are not alone. He cares for others too, and often seeks to minister to the people around us through the character changes He is seeking to bring about through our own suffering or need.
Christlikeness means that even in our pain we are to think of others and how God may want to use us. This goes totally against the grain of human nature and especially against our self-centered society. Ours is a society that is focused on what is best for me regardless of what it could mean to others. What’s best for my career, my happiness, my security, my significance, my . . . (you fill in the blank).
The Revelation to Elijah
A Word From the LORD--COMMUNICATION
The first word we see is the little connective, “then.” It continues the story and points us to what happened next in the sequence of events--Elijah received a word from the Lord with instruction. But the sequence here is resultant; it points to a consequence. In the context, this revelation to the prophet is undoubtedly the result of two spiritual facts. First, there is the faithfulness of God. The brook had dried up but God had promised to supply Elijah’s need. So the Lord comes to Elijah’s rescue. Second, Elijah had met the tests of the brook in faith. He waited on the Lord. He had not run ahead, nor run away to do his own thing, nor complained in discontent. So now, God comes to his rescue and gives new instruction. We see in this the principle of Luke 16:10, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.”
Elijah had been faithful in the matter of dwelling by the brook. Now God was moving him out of this place of solitude and testing into a small, but important ministry because all ministries are important. From his faithfulness at Zarephath greater things would come. God was building Elijah’s faith, capacity for ministry, and using him to comfort the widow and her son at the same time.
What a person does with a small task is an indication of how he will handle a large one. We may think that the small things are not so important--that they do not really matter. However, faithfulness in the small things prepares us to handle the larger things when they come. Even the small things of life are tests of one’s faith and of who is really in control of one’s life.
The next words of verse 8 are “the word of the Lord came to him, saying.” Let’s note a couple of things: First, Elijah did not move until there was communion with God. He waited until he had direction from the Lord--He moved at the Word of the Lord. For Elijah, this was direct revelation, but the principle is God leads and directs us through His Word (which for us is the Bible), and through our communion with Him in Scripture. Of course, the Lord uses other things to give us direction such as open and closed doors, and our own abilities, talents, burdens and interests. He never leads us, however, contrary to the principles and directives of Scripture. Second, this reminds us just how important it is for us to commune with God in His Word so we can know the Word and use it for every decision we face. We can be sure somewhere in Scripture there will be principles that apply. This is not a series on divine guidance, but let me illustrate:
(1) Scripture does not tell us where we should cross the street. But it does tell us to obey the laws of the land and that we are not to tempt the Lord. This means that we should not jay walk in a big city, nor any city where it is against the law and where we are endangering our lives. God does not care where we cross unless we are breaking these two concepts.
(2) The Bible does not tell us what kind of automobile to drive. Frankly, I don’t think God cares unless we ignore biblical principles of the wise use of our income, or we want to own a certain automobile because it would make us feel important and is an attempt at finding personal significance.
Simply stated, we all need to do what is necessary to know and apply the Word. This means spending time in the Word daily, and gathering with other Christians for Bible study and worship. We need to learn new truth, review the old, and then apply it all.
Direction From the LORD--INSTRUCTION
1 Kings 17:9 Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and stay there; behold, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you
This verse has three commands, “arise,” “go,” and “stay.” There is also a promise of provision. In each of these there are tests for the prophet. There are tests of faith or trust, of obedience, of availability and commitment, a test of vision for what God was doing in his life, and a test of contentment.
(1) The First Command--“Arise.” Of course, before we can move on in the will of God, we must arise, not just physically but spiritually. Following the Lord in obedience is the outcome of spiritual life and spiritual awakening. (Cf. Ephesians 5:8f.)
(2) The Second Command--(the natural outcome): “go to Zarephath.” “Go” is a Hebrew word halak which means “to go, walk.” In this case, it carries the idea of traveling or journeying, which included hardships and danger. I don’t want to make too much of this, but spiritually speaking, to arise is to go. It means to wake up from our apathy and sluggishness and get involved in God’s will for our lives. Too often Christians simply sit and soak. Because they are not using what they know in faith, they also eventually begin to sulk, and sour. Rather, God wants us to sit and soak up the Word, but then, by faith to strive for Him in the power of Christ (cf. Col. 1:29). This means our availability to go wherever He wants us. It means our involvement and commitment and all of these are included here. Remember, God’s will usually test us in our faith, our vision for what He is doing, our love, availability, values, commitment, and involvement, etc.
I am sure when Elijah heard these commands his heart leaped, and perhaps he thought, “Whew, just in time Lord, but that’s sure cutting it close!” As this was going through his mind, he then heard, “to Zarephath.” Zarephath comes from tsaraph, “to smelt, refine, test.” The verb is used metaphorically with the sense of “to refine by means of suffering.” Zarephath means “a smelting place, a place of testing.” God uses various testings to refine us and purge out the dross as in the refining of silver and gold. When Elijah heard this name, he probably thought, “Oh oh, here we go again, but the battle is the Lord’s and He is in control.” Then he heard, “which belongs to Sidon.” “Sidon”? He probably thought, “Lord, Sidon belongs to the land of Jezebel, that old prostitute of Baal worship. Lord, this is the center of Baal worship that is now being promoted in Israel. Yes, I know Lord, it’s still your battle and you know what you are doing. But this sure seems like strange directions.”
(3) The Third Command--“and stay there.” Next, he heard “and stay (yashab, “live, dwell”) there.” He might have thought, “This really takes the cake.” And, as if these were not enough, he then heard something even more strange that had to be a tremendous challenge to his commitment, trust and vision as a man of God who was seeking to serve the Lord.
(4) The Promise--“behold, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you.” Note the very next word, “behold.” This is the Hebrew hinneh, a demonstrative particle used to arrest the attention or to focus the reader’s (or hearer’s) attention on something important. The Lord was dramatically pointing out the reason for going to Zarephath. “I have commanded a widow there to provide for you.” Elijah’s provision would come by human hands, but they were the most unlikely hands he could have imagined. Everything about this was a test for Elijah. Please note the following:
“I have commanded a widow” is an interesting statement. Had the Lord spoken to this Gentile widow? Was she waiting for Elijah to come? I think the content of the text suggests this was not the case. I don’t think she was aware at all of her role in God’s plan. Rather, I believe this expresses the divine will of God. It shows that God commands or wills things to take place and they do. He uses the conditions and dispositions of men and women and brings things to pass.
Let’s say you need a job. When you find a job, it will be because God commanded it. Your new employer may not be aware of it unless he or she is a believer, but it will be because God willed it so. “He sits in the heavens, He does what He pleases” (cf. Isa. 10:5-6 with vs. 7, and Gen. 50:19-21).
“Provide” is the Hebrew word, kul. In Aramaic and Arabic this word means “measure, measure out.” The basic meaning is “calculate,” or “contain” as does a vessel. For instance in Isaiah 40:12 the prophet writes, “who hath calculated or contained the dust of the earth by a measure?” Mainly this verb is used in a causative stem and means “to cause to contain, supply.” It came to be used in the sense of “support, sustain, provide for” (cf. Ps. 55:22; Gen. 50:21; Neh. 9:21). While the Hebrew word used is different, I am reminded of one of the Names of the Lord, “Jehovah Jireh” or “Yahweh Yireh,” meaning “the Lord will provide” (Gen. 22:8 and 14). It comes from the Hebrew ra`ah, “to see” as the Lord foresees and thus provides.
The Lord’s Supply--PROVISION
First, God would provide for Elijah through a woman. While women in Israel had a higher position and status than among their Gentile neighbors, this was highly irregular, for it was the man’s place to provide for women. Second, this was a Gentile woman, a woman outside the circle of God’s own people. In fact, she was from the pagan nation of the Sidonians (or Phoenicians) who, at that time, represented the forces arrayed against God’s kingdom. Third, she was a poor, destitute, depressed widow facing starvation. She wasn’t exactly the kind of person you would go to for support, but she was the person whom God had chosen to be Elijah’s support and the instrument of God’s glory. He didn’t know her plight as yet, but he would soon find out and his response is remarkable.
Note several principles of application:
(1) Remember what God said through Isaiah (Isa. 55:8f, God’s ways are not ours)? We might also remember 1 Corinthians 1:27-29, “but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, that no man should boast before God.” God uses sources and instruments we would never choose, but in His wisdom He chooses them to accomplish His own purposes and to do exceeding abundantly beyond all we could ask or think (Eph. 3:20). We should not be surprised then with the tools God sometimes uses. What would we choose? We would choose a hero kind of figure, a well-known athlete, a rich man or a king, but the Lord chose a destitute widow. We would choose someone brilliant, powerful, perhaps someone in the king’s palace. But God chose a woman from Zarephath of the land of Jezebel. Sure, sometimes God uses the powerful and wealthy as he did with Nehemiah (Neh. 2), or Joseph in the latter chapters of Genesis. The question is, what is our response when He chooses to use the poor and the weak in our lives? Do we despise them? Are we disappointed? Or do we thank Him for what He is doing?
(2) The sources God chooses to use often test our submission and faith. How could God possibly supply through this destitute woman? The how is not important. God would show that in time. God only wants us to trust Him regardless of how things look to us. I remember a story my grandfather used to tell about a dear old lady who truly believed God. One day he said to her, “Mary, I believe if God told you to jump through the wall, you would jump.” She replied, “Yes sir, I would. If God told me to jump, it would be my job to jump and His to make a hole.” How can we rest in God’s supply in situations like this? We need to remember a simple but profound concept. Who would supply Elijah’s need, the woman or the Lord? The Lord, of course! The woman was only an instrument.
Never get your eyes on the instrument or the conditions. Look beyond the instrument to the real source of supply--the Lord. Read again the story of Abraham in Genesis 22. He saw beyond the immediate problem to the Lord’s supply.
Often God either chooses the despised and the small, or He reduces our resources to teach us He is really the One who supplies. See Judges 7 for the illustration of Gideon and God’s instruction to him. Lest Israel boast and trust in their own power, the number of men to go up against the Midianites was reduced from 32,000 to 10,000 and finally to 300.
(3) The Lord uses His sources of supply to humble us. Doesn’t He really know how to take the starch of self-dependence and pride totally out of our spiritual shirts in order to bring us to a place where we will really trust Him? Here Elijah was receiving aid at the hands of a destitute widow of the enemies of Israel. How humbling! But also, what an opportunity for the manifestation of God’s grace, love, and power.
(4) Finally, this teaches us God can use any of us. He can take whatever we have and multiply it many times over just as He did with the meager resources of the widow or as the Savior did when feeding the five thousand.
What was Elijah’s response in verse 10? We read, “So he arose and went . . .” No questions, no arguments, no complaints--just obedience. Undoubtedly, it was in the joy and expectation of not only what the Lord would do for him, but through him. Elijah realized he would be there not simply to be ministered to, but to minister.
By way of application:
- Are you in a spiritual condition where you can hear God’s instructions? (Mark 6:30f.)
- What are you facing in your life right now that needs God’s supply? Are you resting in Him for your needs?
- Where is your focus? Are you focused on the problem rather than the Lord? Are you seeing the agents of supply in your life as totally inadequate with the result you are questioning what God can do?
- Does your present condition look impossible? Does it look like there is no way God can meet your needs through what He has brought about into your life?
- Have you considered that before God meets your need, or that in meeting your need, He wants to use you to meet the need of someone else?
Now we turn to another scene in the life of Elijah. Again, God is preparing him for what is to come. But the story also involves what God is doing in the life of His people, the nation of Israel. Let’s not lose sight of the nationalistic interest here. The story deals with more than simply Elijah or his destiny. It also deals with what God was seeking to do in the northern kingdom. It deals with what the northern kingdom was experiencing because of its idolatry. The nation had turned away from the Lord and His Word to the substitutes of the world.
Elijah forms a model for us. We can learn from Elijah about God and about ourselves--our needs, responsibilities in society, and our tendencies under the pressure of the conflict. On the other hand, Israel forms an example of what happens in a society when it ignores God--it goes down hill fast and becomes morally corrupt.
With this in mind, let’s ask a question. Why did God send the Prophet into the land of the Sidonians and to this widow as His source of supply when there were many widows in Israel with just as great a need? Apart from God’s mercy, His use of this in the life of Elijah and the lessons it has for us in that way, there is another very important lesson here that I would like to address. The answer is found for us in the remarks made by the Lord in Luke 4:23-27. Not only was the nation facing drought and famine in the land, but they were also facing a famine of the Word of God. Because of their indifference, idolatry, and unbelief, God sent Elijah out of the land and to a Gentile widow. This was a form of judgment and has a two-fold significance for us:
This was somewhat prophetic of the church age when, because of Israel’s unbelief, God would turn from Israel as a nation and offer the gospel to the Gentile world. Remnants of Israel would still come to Christ, but from the standpoint of the nation and her promised blessings, she would be temporarily set aside (cf. Rom. 11:6-32). Sending Elijah to the widow reminds us of our responsibility to carry the gospel to all men.
This also teaches us we should never take our blessings for granted. Privilege never guarantees success (1 Cor. 10:1-13). It provides the basis for success, but we need to take heed how we use those blessings. When a nation or individuals ignore the Word and turn to the substitutes of the world, they eventually experience the judgment of God. God may finally turn them over to the futility of their own solutions or strategies for life (Rom. 1:18f; Amos 8:11; 2 Tim. 4:3; 2 Thess. 2:10-11).
The Response of Elijah
Both in 1 Kings 17:5 and 17:10, we see how the prophet moved only when he had a word from the Lord. Even though the brook was drying up, he remained by the brook until word came from God. Isaiah 28:16 says, “he that believeth will not make haste” (KJV). The RSV has, “he who believes will not make haste,” and the NASB has “he who believes in it (the cornerstone) will not be disturbed.”
Interestingly, this statement of Isaiah 28:16 is made following a reference to lsrael’s deceptive trusts--her dependence on her own human solutions. Rather than waiting on the Lord, Israel was running ahead to solve her problems and fears through her own strategies. But Elijah waited on the Lord and help arrived. But in what manner? He was commanded to go on a long and toilsome journey through wild and barren country. Further, with so many widows in the land, how was he to find the right one? Isn’t this a natural question? It appears he didn’t know who the widow was, but he knew the Lord who did and that was more than ample.
Elijah was operating by the principle of Proverbs 4:18, “But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn that shines brighter and brighter until the full day.” While this verse refers primarily to the moral rectitude of those who walk with the Lord, it may also illustrate how the Lord directs our paths making His will plain as we walk in His righteousness by faith. The righteous live by faith. Day-by-day, step-by-step as we walk in fellowship with the Lord, He leads and directs the path of the righteous (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17).
Again, being consistent in faith, Elijah did not argue with the Lord, whine, complain, nor run away. Instead, we read, “So he arose and went.” No questions, no arguments, no complaints, just obedience and undoubtedly, in the joy and expectation of what the Lord would do not only in him and for him, but through him. Why? Because, like the Lord Jesus, he would be there not simply to be ministered to, but to minister. I expect also he understood why he was not being sent to the widows of Israel. Also, it was God’s way of removing Elijah from Jezebel’s reach.
The Relief to the Widow
When you and I measure what God is doing, we tend to measure it by what we see and think according to the natural man. We tend to measure God’s supply, or our confidence and hope in God’s supply, by what we see. When we do this, we are walking by sight rather than by faith. The question we need to ask ourselves is: “Do I tend to look at human conditions as a basis for my confidence or do I see through them to the Savior?”
Obviously, we need to know human conditions. We need to know the facts. For this reason, God allowed the spies to go into the land, but what they saw was not to become the basis of their confidence in what God could do nor for what they should do. That was to be found in God’s person, promises, and commands to go in.
Let’s note Elijah’s response: Our text tells us, “and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks.” Again, we have the word “behold,” that little demonstrative particle, hinneh, which is designed to arrest attention. We find Elijah at the gate of the city of Zarephath, but the Lord, who was there before him, had arranged it all. The widow was by the gate gathering sticks by the providence of God. Remember, He leads us step-by-step. He never leaves us, indeed, He goes before us.
If Elijah was looking for something to encourage him from the human standpoint of the widow, like a well-dressed woman living in a luxurious house with a well-stocked pantry, his hopes were soon dispelled. “Gathering sticks,” was a sign of poverty. This woman was so poor she had no fuel, and in order to cook even a meager meal, she had to get out and round up a few sticks. Until now Elijah knew only that his source of supply was a widow. Now he knew she was a poor widow.
By human measurement, how reasonable was it that the man of God could expect sustenance under her roof? It was no more reasonable than Noah should build an ark before he had ever seen rain, much less a flood, or for Joshua to command the people to walk around Jericho and expect the walls to fall down. But the path of obedience is the path of faith that looks to God and not to circumstances both before and after the will of God is clear.
Elijah’s response is the issue. Remember that the brook was a preparation for him. The God who commanded the ravens and supplied through them, was the same God who had commanded the widow and would supply through her. The principle is the Lord is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Circumstances change, but the Lord never changes. Our circumstances do not diminish the character and power of God. They can in no way change His faithfulness or omnipotence.
Elijah responded in faith. But how did faith manifest itself? Like Abraham on Mount Moriah who looked to God for the supply of a lamb, so Elijah saw beyond the woman’s condition to Yahweh Yireh--Lord who provides. He did not judge according to sight, but according to God’s character and divine essence. Elijah trusted in the promises of God. He didn’t throw up his hands and say, “I don’t believe this! You mean this poor soul is my supply for food? How in thunder can she help me?” He responded to God rather than reacting. Elijah acted in faith with his eyes on the Lord. In verses 10 and 11, he asked the widow for a jar of water and a piece of bread. Was he believing the promise of God and acting on it, or was he looking for confirmation by her response that she had been expecting him and had plenty to eat? I think he was believing the promise of God because Elijah knew she was poor by the fact she was gathering sticks.
In verse 12 we see the widow’s response. Elijah’s request opened afresh the wounds and pain of her heart. She could conceal her pain no longer. Her words showed she was not only poor but severely depressed. She had given up and was ready to die. This was their last meal and after that they would simply starve. It also appears she was without any real knowledge of the Lord and without faith. Still her heart was ready and had been prepared for God’s Word and the ministry of Elijah.
Note her words in verse 12, “as the Lord your God lives.” This suggests she must have recognized Elijah as a prophet of Israel, perhaps by his dress (cf. 2 Kings 1:8). But Yahweh was not her God and she wasn’t all that sure about the honesty of Elijah or the reality of his God (cf. vs. 17:24). She needed to see the testimony of Elijah’s life as well as the power of God.
What was Elijah to do now? Was he mistaken? What gave Elijah the courage to act like he did instead of throwing in the towel? Remember, as a man thinketh, so is he! Elijah’s response in verses 13 and 14 were words of faith, compassion, and vision.
As a man of God, he undoubtedly felt compassion for this poor woman but he knew his solutions or strategies for meeting his or her needs were not sufficient. He knew she was poor, yet God’s source of supply was no accident or mistake. Elijah knew God was faithful, powerful, and purposeful and that his needs were God’s concern and that they were met in the Lord. He also knew God was aware of his longings to preach in Israel and this would need to be tabled for now and turned over to the Lord and His timing. This meant he must be available to serve others and trust the Lord for his needs.
For us today, Elijah’s words to the woman in verses 13 and 14 are equivalent to two things: (a) Giving others the promises of God’s love, concern, and care such as the promises of Philippians 4:19; 1 Peter 5:7; Psalm 55:22; and John 10:10. Please note the first half of John 10:10. We often fail to connect the two. (b) Acting as the Good Samaritan; sharing our blessings with others, knowing that our giving will not be our lack (Phil 4:19).
The woman listened to Elijah’s instruction and it was just as he had promised according to the Word of the Lord. She saw the power of God--the widow, her son, and Elijah were all sustained.
What lessons can we learn from this passage?
(1) Look beyond the circumstances to the Lord as Yahweh Yireh--the Lord who supplies.
(2) Never judge or measure God’s supply by what you can see. He is the One who does exceeding abundantly beyond all we can ask or think.
(3) Ask God for the vision needed to see the opportunity for ministry lying, perhaps, right under your nose.
(4) Ask God for the compassion and love needed to reach out to others with His power and love.
(5) Know that the Lord is aware of your longings and turn them over to Him.
(6) Know also that your basic needs have been met in Christ. Knowing that, commit yourself to fulfilling God’s purposes in your life.
God sent Elijah out of the land because the people were indifferent--indeed, rebellious to the Word of God. No man or nation can neglect God’s truth without dire consequences. It can mean a famine, not just for bread and water, but for hearing the Word. This is not just a matter of what God does to us, but what we do to ourselves, of what happens within mankind that hardens us and causes us to ignore and turn away from God.
Far too often today when people look for a church they choose one like they would a country club or a shopping mall, on the basis of consumerism rather than on the teaching of the Word of God and the ministry of its people to one another. Many times the basis of their choice is not the solid teaching of the Word, but programs, music, the number of youth, the activities, and other similar consumer-like issues. Our nation is filled with steeples, but there is a famine in our land. Not a famine of food and water but of the proclamation of the Word of the Lord.