Commentary on 1 Kings 17:1-16 [17-24]
It is much easier to talk about trust — confidence in God’s goodness and provision in the face of despair and doubt — than it is to live it.1
This chapter contains three related stories about how God’s provision is not ultimate. The brook dries up. The jar of oil is about to run out. The widow’s son dies. But then, God provides again. As Elijah trusts God, he must also live on the edge of that trust, that when something else happens, God will again come through.
The first story begins as Elijah tells King Ahab, “As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1). After Elijah proclaims his word, God gives a word to him, directing him to hide by the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan. This is about a 30 mile journey from Samaria, not an unsubstantial journey. Cherith is, however, not far from Gilead, so it could have been a familiar place to Elijah. At this place, Elijah drinks from the river, and God has commanded ravens provide him food. Ravens are among the birds that God forbids the people of Israel to eat (Leviticus 11:15, Deuteronomy 14:14), and they often feed as scavengers, eating dead things and sometimes searching for nests to eat eggs or young birds. God’s choice of this animal to provide bread and meat for Elijah demonstrates two things: first, that God’s manner of provision can be surprising or unusual, and second, that God’s command overrides the natural instinct of this creature, making it even more miraculous.
But this provision runs out. “After a while,” 1 Kings 17:7 says without specifying the amount of time, the brook dries up because of the drought. And once more, God’s word comes to Elijah to direct him to go to a different place, because God has commanded a different source to provide him food. Elijah must journey from east of the Jordan to Zarephath, on the coast south of Sidon, a journey of some fifty or sixty miles. When he gets there, he sees the widow and tells her to bring him some water; after she does that, he tells her to bring him bread. Now, he had been told by God that God had commanded a widow to feed him, but it would seem that she has not received the message. She responds poignantly, that she has nothing baked but only a handful of flour and a little oil, and plans on preparing it for herself and her son, “that we may eat it and die” (1 Kings 17:12). In this context, to this woman, Elijah had the audacity to ask—even demand—that the woman give him food. Perhaps there is a spiritual analogy in how we humans can ask and demand things of God. In other words, trust—at times—can look like audacity.
Elijah responds to the woman’s statement with the command most often repeated in the Bible: “Do not be afraid” (1 Kings 17:13). He then continues in the audacious vein by telling her to first make something for him to eat, and then prepare food for herself and her son, but qualifies it with God’s promise that the jar of flour and the jug of oil will not be emptied until God sends rain on the earth. Notice that they will not be full, so God’s provision may not always be overflowing abundance, but they won’t run out until God sends rain. At that time, they will be empty; God will then provide in new and different ways. The text affirms that God did as God promised; the widow and her household, along with Elijah, eat for “many days” (1 Kings 17:15), another length of time that is not quantified.
The third story of provision differs from the other two in that Elijah does not travel, but remains with the widow in Zarephath. It also differs insofar as there was a reason for the drought: God said it would be so. There is no good reason for the sickness and death of the widow’s son, including her own interpretation that Elijah is to blame for bringing her “sin to remembrance” (1 Kings 17:18). Elijah takes the dead boy from his mother, and brings him up to his own room where he does three things. First, he cries to God, essentially asking God, “why?” (1 Kings 17:20). Second, he “stretches himself on the child” three times. This strange activity can be explained with reference to 2 Kings 4:34, when Elijah’s protégée Elisha, “ … got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm.” Third, Elijah cries again to God, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again” (1 Kings 17:21). And God responds; God listens to Elijah’s voice, and the child returns to life.
When Elijah takes the resurrected child to his mother, she announces, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24). This final verse of the chapter echoes the first verse, where Elijah explained that there would be no rain or dew aside from his word. The word in Elijah’s mouth proves throughout to be true, as is the word of God.
God’s provision of life for the dead child, however, is not ultimate: undoubtedly, the boy will eventually die. The impermanence of God’s provisions—the water in the brook, the flour and oil—does not negate their power and goodness, but are part of the difficult and joyful life of trusting God again, and again, and again.
- Commentary first published on this site on Oct. 30, 2016.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of compassion,
By the power of God, Elijah provided bread and oil for the widow and her household. By faith in God, the widow provided food and water for Elijah. Give us hearts to love one another, so that in providing and in receiving, we too, might experience the unimaginable power of God, through the one who has provided life itself, your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sing me to heaven, Daniel Gawthrop