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In that which is now to be before us we are to behold how the prophet conducted himself in quite different surroundings and circumstances from those which have previously engaged our attention. Hitherto we have seen something of how he acquitted himself in public: his courage and spiritual dignity before Ahab; and also how he acted in private: his life in secret before God by the brook—obedient unto the word of the Lord, patiently waiting His next marching orders. But here the Spirit grants us a view of how Elijah conducted himself in the home of the widow at Zarephath, revealing as it does most blessedly the sufficiency of Divine grace for God’s servants and people in every situation in which they may find themselves. Alas, how often the servant of God who is uncompromising in public and faithful in his secret devotions, fails lamentably in the domestic sphere, the family circle. This should not be; nor was it so with Elijah.
That to which we have just alluded calls perhaps for a few remarks, which we offer not by way of extenuation but of explanation. Why is it that the servant of God is often seen to far less advantage in the home than he is in the pulpit or the closet? In the first place, as he goes forth to discharge his public duties, he is keyed up to do battle against the enemy; but he returns home with his nervous energy spent, to relax and recuperate. Then it is that he is more easily upset and irritated by comparative trifles. In the second place, in his public ministry he is conscious that he is opposing the powers of evil, but in the family circle he is surrounded by those who love him, and is more off his guard, failing to realize that Satan may use his friends to gain an advantage over him. Third, conscious faithfulness in public may have stimulated his pride, and a thorn in the flesh—the painful realization of sad failure in the home—may be necessary to humble him. Yet there is no more justification for God-dishonoring conduct in the domestic circle than in the pulpit.
In our last chapter we reached the point where Elijah—in response to Jehovah’s orders—had left his retirement at Cherith, had crossed the desert and had duly arrived at the gates of Zarephath, where the Lord had (secretly) commanded a widow woman to sustain him. He encountered her at the entrance of the town, though in circumstances which presented a most unpromising appearance to carnal sight. Instead of this woman joyfully welcoming the prophet, she dolefully spoke of the impending death of herself and her son. Instead of being amply furnished to minister unto Elijah, she tells him that “a handful of meal and a little oil in a cruse” was all she had left. What a testing of faith! How unreasonable it seemed that the man of God should expect sustenance upon her roof. No more unreasonable than that Noah should be required to build an ark before there was any rain, still less any signs of a flood; no more unreasonable than that Israel should be required simply to walk round and round the walls of Jericho. The path of obedience can only be trodden as faith is in exercise. “And Elijah said, Fear not: go and do as thou hast said” ( 1 Kings 17:13).
What a gracious word was this to quiet the poor widow’s heart! Be not afraid of the consequences, either to yourself or to your son, in making use of the means to hand, scant though they be. “But make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son (v. 13). What a severe testing was this! Was ever a poor widow so sorely tried before or since? To make him a cake “first” was surely in her extreme circumstances one of the hardest commands ever given. Did it not appear to issue from the very essence of selfishness? Did either the laws of God or of man require a sacrifice like this? God has never bidden us do more than love our neighbour as ourselves, nowhere has He bidden us to love him better . But here “make me a cake first ”! “For 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” (v. 14). Ah, that made all the difference: that removed the sting from the request, showing there was no selfishness inspiring the same.
She was asked for a portion of that little which she had remaining, but Elijah tells her she need not hesitate to bestow it, for although the case seemed desperate God would take care of her and of her son. Observe with what implicit confidence the prophet spoke: there was no uncertainty, but positive and unwavering assurance that their supply should not diminish.
Ah, Elijah had learned a valuable lesson at Cherith—learned it experimentally: he had proved the faithfulness of Jehovah by the brook, and therefore was he now qualified to quiet the fears and comfort the heart of this poor widow—compare 2 Corinthians 1:3,4, which reveals the secret of all effective ministry.
Observe the particular title here accorded Deity. The woman had said, “As the Lord thy God liveth” (v. 12), but this was not sufficient. Elijah declared, “Thus saith the Lord God of Israel”: this Gentile must be made to realize the humbling truth that “salvation is of the Jews” ( John 4:22). “The Lord God of Israel”: of whose wondrous works you must have heard so much: the One who made a footstool of the haughty Pharaoh, who brought His people through the Red Sea dry-shod, who miraculously sustained them for forty years in the wilderness, and who subdued the Canaanites for them. Such a One may surely be trusted for our daily bread.
The “Lord God of Israel” is He whose promise never fails, for “the Strength of Israel will not lie nor repent: for He is not a man, that He should repent” or change His mind ( 1 Samuel 15:29). Such a One may be safely relied upon. “For 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” (v. 14). God gave her His word of promise to rest upon: could she rely upon it? would she really trust Him? Note how definite was the promise: it was not barely, God will not suffer thee to starve, or will surely supply all your need; rather was it as though the prophet had said, The meal in thy barrel shall not diminish nor the oil in thy cruse dry up.
And if our faith be a Divinely-sustained one it will cause us to trust in God’s promise, to commit ourselves unreservedly to His care, and to do good unto our fellow-creatures. But observe how faith must continue in exercise: no new barrel of meal was promised or furnished: just an undiminished “handful”—seemingly an inadequate quantity for the family, but quite sufficient with God. “Until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth” evidenced the firm faith of the prophet himself. “And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days” (v. 15). Who can forebear exclaiming, O woman, great is thy faith! She might have advanced many excuses to the prophet’s request, especially as he was a stranger to her, but great as the test was, her faith in the Lord was equal to it. Her simple trust that God would take care of them overcame all the objections of carnal reason. Does she not remind us of another Gentile woman, the Syro-Phoenician, a descendant of the idolatrous Canaanites, who long afterwards welcomed the appearance of Christ to the borders of Tyre, and who sought His aid on behalf of her demon-distressed daughter? With astonishing faith she overcame every obstacle, and obtained a portion of the children’s bread in the healing of her daughter (Matthew 15). Would that such cases moved us to cry from our hearts, “Lord, increase our faith,” for none but He who bestows faith can increase it. “And she, and he, and her house, did eat many days. And 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” (vv. 15, 16). She was no loser by her generosity. Her little supply of meal and oil was but sufficient for a single meal and then she and her son must die. But her willingness to minister unto God’s servant brought her sufficient, not only for many days, but until the famine ended. She gave Elijah of the best she had, and for her kindness to him God kept her household supplied throughout the famine. How true it is that “He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward” ( Matthew 10:41).
But all of God’s people are not granted the privilege of succouring a prophet , yet they may succour God’s poor . It is not written, “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord; and that which he hath given will He pay again” ( Proverbs 19:17)?
God will be no man’s debtor. “And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days. And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail.” Here again we have exemplified the fact that the receiving of God’s blessing and obtaining of food (in figure, spiritual food) is the result of obedience . This woman complied with the request of God’s servant and great was her reward. Are you, my reader, fearful of the future? Afraid that when strength fails and old age comes you may be left without the necessities of life? Then suffer us to remind you that there is no need whatever for such fears. “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things (temporal necessities) shall be added unto you” ( Matthew 6:33). “O fear the Lord, ye His saints: for there is no want to them that fear Him” ( Psalm 34:9). “No good thing will He withhold from them that walk uprightly” ( Psalm 84:11).
But note well that each of these promises is conditional : your business is to give God the first place in your life, to fear, obey and honour Him in all things, and in return He guarantees your bread and water shall be sure.
Is there a reader inclined to reply, “such wholesome counsel if easier to receive than to act on. It is simpler to be reminded of God’s promises than to rely upon the same”? Someone else may be disposed to say,” Ah, you know not how distressing are my circumstances, how dark the outlook, how sorely Satan is injecting doubts into my mind.” True, yet however desperate your case may be, we would earnestly beg you to think upon the widow of Zarephath: it is most unlikely that your situation is as extreme as hers, yet she perished not of starvation. He who puts God first will always find Him with him at the last. Things which seem to be acting against us, work together for our good in His wondrous hands. Whatever be your need, dear friend, forget not Elijah’s God. “And she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.” Here we see Elijah dwelling safely in the humble abode of this poor widow. Though the fare was frugal, yet it was sufficient to preserve life in the body. There is no hint that God provided any variation of diet during those “many days,” nor any intimation that the prophet became dissatisfied with being required to eat the same kind of food over so long a period. This is where we obtain our first glimpse of how he conducted himself within the family circle. Blessedly did he exemplify that Divine precept, “Having food and raiment let us be therewith content” ( 1 Timothy 6:8).
And from whence does such contentment proceed? From a submissive and peaceful heart which rests in God: subjection to His sovereign pleasure, satisfaction with the portion He is pleased to allot us, seeing His hand both in providing and in withholding. “And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail.”
Certainly the widow had no cause to complain of the severe testing to which her faith had been put. God, who sent His prophet to board with her, paid well for his table—by providing her family with food while her neighbours were starving, and by granting her the company and instruction of His servant. Who can tell what blessing came to her soul under the edifying conversation of Elijah and from the efficacy of his prayers? She was of a humane and generous disposition, ready to relieve the misery of others and minister to the needs of God’s servants; and her liberality was returned to her a hundredfold. Unto the merciful God shows mercy. “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward His name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister” ( Hebrews 6:10). “And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail.” Let us now endeavour to look higher, lest we miss the lovely type which is to be found here. The “meal” is certainly a Divinely-selected figure of Christ, the “corn of wheat” hat died ( John 12:24), being ground between the upper and nether millstones of Divine judgment that He might be unto us the “Bread of life.” This is clear from the first few chapters of Leviticus, where we have the five great offerings appointed for Israel, which set forth the person and work of the Redeemer; the Meal offering of “fine flour” (Leviticus 2), portraying the perfections of His humanity. It is equally clear that the “oil” is an emblem of the Holy Spirit in His anointing, enlightening and sustaining operations. It is a most blessed line of study to trace through the Scriptures the typical references to the “oil”.
As the little family of Zarephath was not sustained by meal or oil alone, but the two in conjunction, so the believer is not sustained spiritually without both Christ and the Holy Spirit. We could not feed upon Christ, yea, we would never feel our need of so doing, were it not for the gracious influence of the Spirit of God. The one is as indispensable to us as the other: Christ for us, the Spirit in us; the One maintaining our cause on high, the Other ministering to us down here. The Spirit is here to “testify” of Christ ( John 15:26), yea to “glorify” Him ( John 16:14), and therefore did the Saviour add, “He shall receive of Mine, and shall shew it unto you.” Is not this why the “meal”(three times over) is mentioned first in the type? Nor is this the only passage where we see the two types combined: again and again in the beautiful prefigurations of the Old Testament we read of the “oil” being placed upon the blood ( Exodus 29:21; Leviticus 14:14, etc). “And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail.” There was a steady increase and supply of both according to the mighty power of God working a continuous miracle: is there not a close parallel between this and the Saviour’s supernatural increasing of the five barley loaves and the two small fishes, while the disciples were distributing and the multitude eating ( Matthew 14:19,20)? but again we would look from the type to the Antitype. The meal continued undiminished, the supply unabated, and the meal pointed to Christ as the nourisher of our souls. The provision which God has made for His people in the Lord Jesus remains the same throughout the centuries: we may come to Him again and again, and though we receive from Him “grace for grace” yet His “fulness” ( John 1:16), continues the same “yesterday, and today, and for ever.” “Neither did the cruse of oil fail” foreshadowed the grand truth that the Holy Spirit is with us to the very end of our pilgrimage ( Ephesians 4:30).
But let us point out again that God did not give a new barrel of meal and cruse of oil unto this family at Zarephath, nor did He fill to the brim the old one. There is another important lesson for us in this. God gave them sufficient for their daily use, but not a whole year’s supply in advance or even a week’s provision all at once. In like manner, there is no such thing as our laying up for ourselves a stock of grace for future use. We have to go constantly to Christ for fresh supplies of grace. The Israelites were expressly forbidden to hoard up the manna: they had to go out and gather it anew each morning. We cannot procure sufficient sustenance for our souls on the Sabbath to last us throughout the week, but must feed on God’s Word each morning. So too, though we have been regenerated by the Spirit once and for all, yet He renews us in the inner man “day by day” ( 2 Corinthians 4:16). “According to the word of the Lord, which He spake by Elijah (v. 16).
This was illustrative and demonstrative of a vital principle: no word of His shall fall to the ground, but all things “which God hath spoken by the mouth of all His Holy prophets since the world began” ( Acts 3:21), shall surely be accomplished. This is both solemn and blessed. Solemn, because the treatenings of Holy Writ are not idle ones, but the faithful warnings of Him that cannot lie. Just as surely as Elijah’s declaration, “There shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (v. 1), was fulfilled to the letter, so will the Most High make good every judgment He has denounced against the wicked. Blessed, because as truly as the widow’s meal and oil failed not according to His word through Elijah, so shall every promise made to His saints yet receive its perfect accomplishment. The unimpeachable veracity, unchanging faithfulness and almighty power of God to make good His Word, is the impregnable foundation on which faith may securely rest.