1 Kings 17:1-24.
 
Trusting God In the Worst of Times

American Journal of Biblical Theology, February 18, 2007
Copyright © 2007, J.W.  Carter.      Scripture quotes from KJV


The Old Testament books of the Kings and Chronicles describe the tumultuous history of the early kings of Israel from its leadership as a united kingdom under David, through its division into two nations as Judah was separated out to itself.  It was not God's desire that Israel would be led by earthly kings, but rather that the nation would follow Him, but under the leadership of the prophet Samuel, God allowed the anointing of Saul as the King of Israel, though through the prophet, the people were told of the devastating consequences of the fulfillment of their wishes.  The prophet told Israel that their kings would place them in bondage and lead them away from God.  The prophesy became true shortly following the death of David when the nation divided. Solomon placed the nation in bondage to himself and his construction projects, and commenced leading the nation away from God and into a relationship with the neighboring tribal conclaves and nations.  With those relationships came their subsequent abandonment of the worship of God for the sensual worship of the Canaanite fertility gods.  As kings passed their throne down to their successors, the nation of Israel moved further away from God, suffering the consequences of their apostasy in a continual qpiritual decline.  When one would think that things could get no worse, in the thirty-eighth year of Asa, king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel. (1 Kings 16:29).

The scripture states that Ahab was far worse than all of the kings before him.  Together with his Sidonian wife, Jezebel, they built an altar to Baal and set a new standard for evil leadership by persecuting those in Israel who would not bow to the altar. It is into this setting that we are introduced to a prophet of God who was faithful in confronting Israel with their evil, and as an Israelite suffered alongside them, and as an individual, suffered from the limitations of his own humanity.  We will see in the life of Elijah a person who in dealing with many personal and public issues still remained faithful in is trust in God even through periods of doubt and depression.  He is a prophet that many people today can identify with

1 Kings 17:1.

And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.  

By the time that Elijah gained access to Ahab, the nation had already been in a season of drought for six months.  During this time the worshippers of the Canaanite gods would turn their focus on the sensual gods of fertility, to the god of rain and storm, Baal and to his consort, Asherah.  It is to this Canaanite godhead that Ahab and Jezebel were turning the nation, and a lack of rain would be perceived of those who worshipped this rain god as abandonment.  The drought would highlight the falsity of the existence of such a god in contrast with the one true God who has the ability to bring the rain.  Elijah is coming forward with a word from God at a point when Israel had completely broken its covenant relationship (Deut. 11).  In all of Israel it would be the one man who prayed to God and agonized over the apostasy of the nation, Elijah who would gain access to the king and bring him God's word.

The message that Elijah brings to Ahab is simple.  There have been six months of draught without so much as a dew drop on the ground in the morning.  Elijah knew God's immediate plan from hearing "a word" from Him.  That plan was to continue the drought, further discrediting the false god, Baal, for not months, but years, and that drought would continue until Elijah himself gave the word that it would end.  By holding the word to end the drought himself, Elijah would make the issue with Ahab personal.  Ahab would not be able to secure a solution to the drought by calling upon the venerated Baal, but rather from a simple man, Elijah.  Israel would not see rain until Ahab turned away from Baal for its coming and turned to God through the authority of Elijah given to him by God Himself.   By making the issue personal, Elijah also put his own life in great jeopardy, protected only by the hand of God against the anger and irrational behavior of a violent, wicked, and godless king.  Usually one who would bring bad news to the king would be the subject of his response to that news, often by their own persecution, torture, or death.  However, Elijah trusted that God would protect him against this king, and yet he listened to God as he vacated the court.

1 Kings 17:2-3.

And the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, 3Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. 

God did not leave Elijah with Ahab in his pagan palace at Jezreel, but rather called upon him to travel eastward about fifteen miles to a desert place where he would not be found.  The narrow gorge of Cherith is near the Jordan river, in an uninhabited location where no person would be likely to look.  This move would have several implications both for Ahab and for Elijah.  As the drought would continue, Ahab would remember Elijah's words, and at some point would become desperate to find him.  In that desperation, God would be able to start to work on Ahab, and hence on the nation also as He sought to turn the nation back to himself.  

The journey to Cherith would also be a challenge for Elijah.  Again, Cherith is a desert land with no population.  Without a population to draw from, Elijah would have no means of providing for himself.  The presence of a brook implies that there is water there, but because of the protection that the desert provides him, there is little else.

1 Kings 17:4.

And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there.

As we learn more about Elijah, we find that he was a man who struggled with his own self-doubts.  His faith in God was strong, but his confidence in his own abilities was often shaken.  It is noteworthy to point out that God could not only use a person with great self-doubts to accomplish His task, but that such a person is Elijah, the most respected and venerated of the prophets.  One can imagine Elijah's response when God told him that he is to retreat to the desert of Cherith.  The first questions that would come to his mind were no longer of the plight of Ahab, but rather, the plight of his own self.  The drought in Israel would bring tremendous hardship, turning the entire nation into a land as dry as a desert.  Plants, animals, and ultimately people, would suffer and die.  God did not call on Elijah to retreat to a place of comfort, but to a place of similar hardship.  By doing this, Elijah would not escape the hardship of his Israelite peers, and so by doing avoiding the guilt of abandonment to a comfortable place.  At the same time, just as Israel would have to turn to God for help, so would Elijah.  God gave Elijah the authority to end the drought, but made it very clear where the authority to do so comes from.  Elijah would become completely dependant upon God in a situation quite different from one where with such authority no such dependence is experienced.  Still, amid Elijah's doubts, Elijah remained faithful to God's command as he went to this desert place with no source of physical sustenance other than that promised by God.

God in His mercy and compassion communicates to Elijah that, though he is going to a desert place, God has appointed the birds to care for his welfare.  Imagine the leap of faith that would be needed for a man to follow such a plan.  It would have been far easier for Elijah to attribute the challenging message of God's word to a dream inspired by a vivid imagination.  Still, despite his doubts, Elijah recognized the word of the LORD and fled from the presence of the evil king, Ahab, to the desert region of Cherith. 

1 Kings 17:5-7.

So he went and did according unto the word of the LORD: for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. 6And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook. 7And it came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up, because there had been no rain in the land.

Though some have argued that "ravens" is a euphemism for traveling pirate merchants, the context of the situation makes such a bold rationalization of God's miracles unwarranted.  The gorge of Cherith is an isolated place far from the merchant routes where these feared thieves might be found.  The truth is simple:  God commanded the birds to bring food to Elijah just as they would bring food to their yearling chicks.  God sent them gathering the food that Elijah would need as water was provided by the brook.  However, due to the drought in the land, the supply of water that fed the brook of Cherith dried up, leaving Elijah in a dangerous situation.  Without water, he could survive only a couple of days.  Elijah would again be required to turn to God.  One could speculate that God could have kept the brook running just as he had commanded the birds to forage.  Was Elijah becoming proud of his task of carrying the word of God, and starting to feel a bit self-empowered?  Did he need to be reminded of his dependence on God?  God had a plan of provision that was beyond anything that Elijah could imagine.

1 Kings 17:8-9.

And the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, 9Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee.

When the brook dried up, God sent Elijah to Zarepath in the land of neighboring Phoenicia, or Sidon.  Imagine feelings of confusion and irony that Elijah must have experienced when God called him to go to the homeland of Jezebel, his most virulent enemy.  By this time Ahab's search for Elijah is becoming urgent.  He has certainly sent his spies throughout Israel looking for Elijah.  Now Elijah would have to slip through the country on his 40 - 50 mile journey north into a pagan country where Ahab would least expect him to be hiding, particularly considering Elijah's obvious opposition to Jezebel.

1 Kings 18:10-12.

So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks: and he called to her, and said, Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink. 11And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand. 12And she said, As the LORD thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.

When Elijah arrived in Zarepath he was tired, hungry, and thirsty.  God had told him that he would be cared for by a widow woman, a pagan Gentile, one who is considered a non-person by most Jewish men of the day.  Upon meeting the woman, Elijah asks for some water and bread.  However, 40 - 50 miles of travel was not far enough to escape the drought in the land.  This widow and her son, lacking someone to care for them, were unable to even care for themselves.  This woman and her son were starving, and had no more ability to provide food to Elijah than the ravens of Cherith.  Of course, if we consider what God could do with the ravens, we recognize that God can also work through a destitute and rejected Gentile widow.  

The widow's response to Elijah is predictable.  Normally, in such a circumstance, the woman is bound by their culture to care for the traveling stranger, and to refuse such assistance only serves to emphasize the significance of the desperation faced by this small Gentile family.  Though she could give Elijah a drink, she refused him the last morsel of bread that she had so that she and her son could eat it as their own last meal before they starve to death.  As Elijah met the woman she was in the process of gathering wood for the fire to bake her last handful of bread meal.

The situation sounds desperate.  Like the Charles Dicken's opening to The Tale of Two Cities, " it was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  How can any good be found though such desparate circumstances.  This could only be the worst of times that could be imaginable for Elijah, the widow, and for their nations.  When we experience times of great conflict and desperation there is always a temptation to blame God for our circumstances and refuse to even seek God's purpose in our experience.  God has promised purpose and provision for all that takes place in the life of the faithful (Rom. 8:28), but it is difficult to remember God's promise when we are overwhelmed with fear and grief.  However, God's promises are given to the faithful so that they will not be so overwhelmed.  Elijah could have succumbed to the emotional destitution of this widow woman and there with her son, died of starvation.  However, rather than being blinded by the circumstance, Elijah remembered God's promise of provision and was not subject to the hopelessness that so characterized the widow.  Elijah trusted in the LORD, and because of that trust could hear the still-small voice of the Holy Spirit as He gave His plan to Elijah, a plan for salvation from the consequences of their immediate circumstance.

1 Kings 17:13-14.

And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son. 14For thus saith the LORD God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the LORD sendeth rain upon the earth.

God had a plan for the salvation of both Elijah, the woman, and her son.  It was, however, a plan that called upon each of them to turn to Him in faith.  Elijah again heard the word of the LORD, clearly understanding that He would be true to his promise of provision through this widow.  Because of his trust in God's promise, he was confident in sharing what could only be interpreted as an outlandish command:  "Woman, bake it all, and bring me the first morsel.  If you do, your supply of bread and oil will not deplete until the rains come."  One can be amazed at the faith of Elijah to declare such a plan with such confidence.    Certainly, the woman had nothing to lose.  This man spoke with boldness and confidence, and still there was a unique and unfamiliar spirit of care and compassion in his presence.  

1 Kings 17:15-16.

And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days. 16And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake by Elijah.

The result of Elijah's obedience to the LORD is significant.  Through what God was planning (1)  Elijah would again be witness to an experience that would strengthen his trust in God, (2) the woman would for the first time in her life experience the power of this "Jewish God" that all of the people had heard about, and (3) all future generations would gain an example of the purpose of God in providing for the needs of those who turn to Him. As God had promised to Elijah, and as Elijah had then promised to the woman, the supply of bread and oil did not deplete as they continued to prepare meals throughout the days of drought, presumably a period of as much as two years.  Still, though God was working deeply in the heart of Elijah, the woman was still unaffected.  She would understand clearly that she was caring for a venerated Jewish prophet, a man of its Jewish God.  Her survival, and the survival of her son served, in her mind, only to care for this important man.  If it were not for Elijah's coming, she and her son would already be dead, and now if he were to leave, they would surely die of starvation.  

Ancient near-east culture had a very localized perspective of gods.  They thought that different gods had domain in different geographical regions just as human kings.  Consequently, each nation or region had its gods.  This woman would think that she was being visited by the Jewish God because of Elijah's presence, and for that reason alone.  However, God sought to open the eyes of the woman to understand that His love extends to all people who turn to him, not just the children of Israel.

1 Kings 17:17.

And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick; and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him. 

Could "the worst of times" get any worse?  The widow was certainly riding a wave of grief and despair.  First we are informed of her status as a widow with a child.  Even in good times her status is a hardship.  She has suffered the loss of her husband and with him went her status in the society.  Unable to profit in the marketplace and forced to beg for handouts from other family members, friends, and acquaintances, her status as a widow condemns her to a live of poverty.  She sees the decline in her state as the draught not only dries up opportunities for water, but also opportunities for alms when others are now suffering also.  Resolved to die, she meets this godly benefactor on the road who offers her hope against hope.  True to his promise, their existence is secured against the starvation that is plaguing the region.  Now, when hope is finally found, her son who was most likely weakened by their malnourished state when Elijah arrived, fell sick and died.  Now her newfound hope for survival has suffered a fatal blow.  With a son, she has the hope that once he turns of age, he will support her for the remainder of her days, and she can live in peace and security.  With the loss of her son, she has lost all hope.  This prophet whose presence has served to sustain her and her son will not stay forever.  He promised her survival until the rains come, and now she faces starvation when it does.  The tremendous grief she is experiencing over the loss of her son is only exacerbated by her loss of hope in the future.

Where does one turn when such a crisis arises in life? For the widow, there is no foreseeable solution to the dilemma.  No amount of comforting or counseling will provide a solution.  People who do not know God face a similar dilemma when crises arise in their lives.  Who does one turn to in the storm when there is no handhold against its fury?   Millions upon millions of people face the storm of life's crises without a relationship with God, without any hope at all.  They suffer, and they die, apart from experiencing not only the peace and hope that God gives in such times, but also in their apostasy, they are not capable of turning to God for help.

1 Kings 17:18.

And she said unto Elijah, What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son? 

The widow woman had come to know this Prophet of Israel and the God that he serves, proclaims, and worships.  Living together day by day, she must have heard the stories of the Israelite community, how God had kept them safe in Egypt against the last great drought, how He delivered them from the bondage of a cruel Pharaoh, how He brought them to the promised land through a series of miraculous events that served to protect and sustain the nation and its people in times of crisis.  No doubt he also told her of his frustration with the direction that the kings had taken the nation.  Certainly, she had learned a lot about this God of Israel.  Could this God help her?  She is not a child of Abraham.  She is reviled by the Jews more than she is of her own people, and certainly she must be reviled of their God.  As Israel hated the Gentiles, would Elijah's God hate her?  She has no part with this nation of Israel, and from her perspective of grief where can she turn to for blame for the death of her son, but to Elijah?  As their culture equated sickness and death with sin's consequences, she could only look into her own life and see the sin that lives in her own heart.  Baal, Chemosh, Asherah, Dagon, and all of these Canaanite gods would not slay her for her sin, but this God of Elijah is a righteous God.

Still, if this God of Elijah is as Elijah describes, there may be hope for her yet.  He performed miracles before, can he perform one now?

1 Kings 17:19-22.

And he said unto her, Give me thy son. And he took him out of her bosom, and carried him up into a loft, where he abode, and laid him upon his own bed. 20And he cried unto the LORD, and said, O LORD my God, hast thou also brought evil upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son? 21And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the LORD, and said, O LORD my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again. 22And the LORD heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.

It is not hard to see why the prophet Elijah is so easily venerated by the Jewish people.  We have seen him act on faith as he went to a wicked king with bad news, how he followed God's command into the desert, and then into the hands of a destitute widow, all the way dependant upon God for his security and sustenance.  Now the situation has taken a dramatic turn.  At risk here is not a nation, but simply the spirit of a lonely and desperate woman, a women alienated from both her own people and by the people of God.    Elijah would fully know the consequences the loss of this son will have on this widow.  She has honored God by serving to meet the needs of His prophet.  Why should she so suffer now?  Certainly Elijah had never experienced the raising of one who is dead.  Such an event is not recorded in the annals of the kings, nor in the teachings of the school of prophets.  Elijah's faith had been strengthened so much by his experiences with God that he had no doubt that God could raise this child from the dead.  However, how does one go about asking God for such a miracle?

Many have conjectured over the years on the significance of Elijah's act of "stretching himself" over the child three times.  Elijah could not look up the formula for raising the dead in some book.  He merely did what came to mind, a mind that was wholly dedicated to listening to the Holy Spirit.  Some have argued that Elijah breathed into the lungs of the child, and that is certainly possible.  In the midst of grief, agony, fear, and despair, the prayers of a compassionate and sincere heart were heard by God, and the child revived.  Now, a second time in only a short period, that valley of despair would be again filled with hope, and this time with a measure of joy that cannot be fully understood.   

1 Kings 17:23-24.

And Elijah took the child, and brought him down out of the chamber into the house, and delivered him unto his mother: and Elijah said, See, thy son liveth. 24And the woman said to Elijah, Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in thy mouth is truth.

The lives of three people changed that day.  For certain, one can argue that the child who was dead now lived.  However, for the remainder of his days he would never be without the knowledge of what happened during the drought, how this man of God came into their home, how God had saved him from the grave through this man, and he would understand why his mother had such a love and appreciation for this Jewish God.  She probably raised her son to love and acknowledge this God also.   For the first time in her life the woman had seen the power of a real God.  Unlike the non-existent gods of the pagans whose power is only exercised in the propaganda of their followers, Elijah's God is who He proclaims to be: the only one true God who has saved her life and the life of her son, people who are not even members of the race of Israel.  Upon the restoration of her son she acknowledges that what Elijah has been telling her and teaching her over these many days is all true.  She is now free to turn to this one true God in faith.  

Finally, Elijah would also never be the same again.  He had also experienced the power of God's grace, love, and mercy in the restoration of the widow's son.  Never in his life would Elijah ever doubt God or His power.  However, Elijah is revealed by scripture to be a normal person subject to the vagaries of an intelligent mind, and later he would still fight a battle with his own self-doubts, but in the end he would always be able to turn to the God whom he now trusts completely.

We should not have to experience a series of miracles as Elijah did in order for us to place our complete trust in God.  We have become so accustomed to our experience that we probably fail to recognize that life itself is just as much a miracle as its restoration.  We have learned of what God has done in the lives of men and know enough about Him to turn to Him in faith.  However, we often feel secure enough in our own ability to take care of ourselves. We often feel strong enough in our own abilities, that we pridefully reject our true need for God, and our ultimate need for a Savior.  It is not until a crisis arises in our lives that we cannot handle will we finally turn our attention and our trust to God.   Elijah had already established a pattern of trust in God prior to the crisis, so when the storms of life came, Elijah, who was never known for his self-confidence, was still able to keep his trust in the LORD and was never overwhelmed.  Elijah had plenty of time during these experiences to fall back into his "woe-is-me," downward spiral of depression, and there were probably many moments when Elijah struggled.  Elijah was sustained through the experience because his trust in the LORD and His promises was real.

We will all experience crises in life, those times when we completely lose control over our circumstances, those times when we suffer great loss or find ourselves on the brink of so losing.  It is difficult to understand how people who have rejected God find any hope in hopeless circumstances.  Yet, it is even difficult for the Christian to weather life's most difficult storms.  However, through the example of Elijah we can see that God can provide for us and sustain us through those storms when our faith is fully in Him, trusting Him for our sustenance.  That trust needs to be in place before the storm strikes, since the power of the storm itself can be so overwhelming.

The final crisis, however, is one that no man can handle.  God is a Righteous,  Holy, and Just God, and demands that all who would spend eternity with Him be similarly righteous.  A time will come when each person will be judged against God's righteousness in a decision that will separate those who spend eternity with Him and those who will not.  The scriptures, including the writing of the prophets, illustrate clearly that there is only one way by which people can be saved: by true faith in God.  God demanded that our sins be atoned for by blood sacrifice, a sacrifice that was made by His Son, Jesus, on the Cross and all who would place their faith in God through Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the eternal Son of God, believing that He stepped out of eternity in the form of a human baby, suffered at the hands of wicked men, was cricified, dead, and buried, and was resurrected from the dead to return to God in heaven can be saved.  Still even the demons believe this to be true (James 2:19) and they tremble.  It is only through acknowledging the truth, and turning to God in faith with Jesus as LORD, can one be saved.  When one turns to God in this manner, the Holy Spirit of God will protect that decision and serve as a mark of the Christian when the judgment day comes.

Until that day, all who trust in God can experience the peace in the knowledge that the season of drought will end, and an eternity with Him will be found.  As God provided for Elijah and the widow of Phoenicia, God can provide for all who put their faith and trust in Him, both in times of peace, and in times of great turmoil. 


References

Patterson, R.D. and Austel, Hermann J. (1988)  1 & 2 Kings, Expositor's Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein Ed.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House.  pp. 136-140.