One word on the translation of this passage: Your Bible will have the word "Lord" perhaps in all capitals, "L-O-R-D." That is an English translation or a way of conveying the message of the Hebrew name for God, "Yahweh." It's important, I think, that this name be emphasized because it's the covenant name of God. It's the name by which he identifies himself with his people. That will have great import for the message of this lesson today.
Here we are in an Old Testament story. Funny thing about the Old Testament: My son Sam is in preschool this year, and a few weeks ago, he came home with his folder and it had the letter "N" on top. Being as clever as I am, I said, "They must be learning the alphabet." I said, "Sam, how's it going with the letter 'N'? What did you learn this week?"
And he said, "Namaan."
I said, "Excuse me?"
He said, "Namaan. You know, the guy with the spots on his skin who had to go wash in the river."
I go, Namaan. Wow, thank you, Lord. I'm doing Old Testament research on Namaan, writing books with him in it, and my son is learning it in pre-K. What a blessing.
Now I'm paying attention. A couple weeks later, he comes home with a letter "Q," so I'm curious—now, what are they doing with the letter Q? It's Queen Esther. I said, "Another Old Testament story: Praise the Lord!" Now I'm hooked. The week after that, it's "R." Who else? Ruth and Naomi.
Now I'm excited. It's like a suspense story. Next week is going to be "S." Who is "S" going to be? Two people: Solomon and Samson. I looked at that and I said to my wife, "Isn't it amazing that Sam is learning all these Old Testament stories that are so close to my heart?"
The unity of Scripture
Then it gave me cause for pause. I've been around a lot of churches and pastors and academic studies, and the sad thing is that Sam might be spending as much time in the Old Testament this year as most evangelical churches. That's sad. There's got to be something different.
Then I thought, Some of the teaching I've heard about the Old Testament is not too great either. It's a shortcut to saying, "You know these Bible stories we teach kids? That's all they are—they're stories, sketches of people we need to learn from." We take the story of David and say, "I remember that David story. We need to learn to face our giants or slay our Goliaths." Or we turn to Nehemiah and say, "So what walls are you building?"
There's something missing from the story of the Old Testament there, and I'm committed to the unity of Scripture. Paul didn't say, "All Scripture is profitable, but some is more profitable than others." All Scripture is profitable (2 Tim. 3:16), and he was referring to the Old Testament.
How do these stories become profitable for us? We have to take the stories and weave them together. Sure, the Bible's full of biography, poetry, theology, philosophy, geography—but it's also the story of Jesus. The Old Testament points forward to Jesus, and the New Testament and the Epistles point back to Jesus, but it's all about Jesus.
How do we connect the dots and make it one story? I don't know if your Bible is like mine, but you get to the end of the Old Testament and the end of the Book of Malachi, and what's there? There's a blank page. There's a blank page between the testaments. But it's one story; it's one book. How do we connect the threads?
I suggest this: that it's all about Jesus, and it starts with the promised plan of God. What is that promised plan? Throughout the Bible, God states this promise: "I will be your God, you will be my people, and I will dwell with you forever." That's the promised plan, and that is fulfilled in the person and the life and the work of Jesus. That's our one story.
How are we going to read the Bible then? If we go back to the Old Testament, let's read it this way. Let's read it through the lens of God's promise plan, of that one story. Here's the lesson or the discipline I would recommend. Ask a couple of questions: First, how does this passage of Scripture tell us about God, reveal what he's doing and who he is? Second, what does this passage tell us about man, about our condition in a fallen world? Third, what does this passage tell us about God's promise plan to bring man and God to dwell together forever?
I think that only after we get to that point—after we've carefully looked at the passage and placed it in that context—can we then turn and say, "What's in it for me? How does this apply to me?" To paraphrase that great theologian, I'd say this: "Ask not what the Lord can do for you; ask what you can do for the Lord." That's the paradigm I'd suggest in approaching every passage of Scripture, but especially the Old Testament—because we may have fallen into some bad habits there.
I'd ask you this: How do you read the Bible? Do you read it back-to-front or front-to-back? Do you just read the back, or do you just pick your favorite verses? I suggest we approach the Bible the way it's written and the way God has revealed the story, from front-to-back, as one story.
As we look at the story today of the widow of Zarephath and Elijah, I'd like to approach it in four ways. First, let's place it in context of what's going on around the story. Secondly, go through the passage and see what's happening in the historical account. Third, see if we can take the thread and connect it to the Bible story, the story of God's promise plan, and we'll do that through the ministry and teaching of Jesus. Fourth, we'll try and make some application from it.
The story in context
Let's look at the context. You see here that in verse 8, "the word of the Lord came to [Elijah]: 'Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there.'"
Well, what's been going on here? Well, you find out in chapter 17 that God has commissioned Elijah to be a prophet. He has called him to serve him and to take his word and carry it to his covenant people, Israel. The covenant God desires to convey his covenant word to his covenant people through his appointed prophet. How does that work?
Elijah accepts his commissioning. It's not an easy job: He has to go see Ahab and Jezebel, the king and queen of Israel, and give them the Word of God, and it's not a good word. The word is this: "As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word" (1 Kings 17:1). Elijah delivers that message, and God gives him a little nudge and says, "Okay, Elijah, thanks for doing that—now you better get out of here. You're not going to be the most popular preacher in town. They're coming after you."
God appoints a place for him to go, and first he says, "There's going to be a drought; there's going to be famine. I'm going to send you to this little brook. There'll be running water, so you'll have water. I'll take care of you, and the ravens will come and bring you food." God's going to take care of his prophet. But pretty soon the water dries up as the drought continues, and God says, "Okay, got to move on with this plan." He tells him to go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon.
What is God doing here? Take a step back into the 10,000-foot level. Yahweh, the covenant God, is withdrawing from Israel. What does that mean? First, he's withdrawing his provision. He is withholding the rain. In the Middle East, when it doesn't rain, you can't grow crops—you will not eat.
Secondly, he's withdrawing his prophet. He's removing Elijah from Israel and sending him to some other place. The Word of God is being removed from his people. Not only will there be a famine of bread, but there's going to be a famine of God's Word.
Third, God is removing his power. He says, "I will not be there to deliver you from this problem. I am stepping back. Yes, I delivered you from Israel; yes, I provided manna for you in the wilderness; yes, I brought water from the rock. But right now, you want to do things your way. Have it your way. I'm putting my covenant on the shelf and letting you have it your way." God is removing his presence from his covenant people.
Think about how that relates to us for a second. Do you ever feel that God is somehow distant in our lives? As believers, he's always here—he sent his Spirit, and we're connected to Christ in our hearts—but we have those dry times. We think God is far away. How do we react in those dry times? Do we blame God? Lord, where are you? I need you now, and you're not here. Or do we look in the mirror, look in God's Word, and say, "You know what? Maybe it's just circumstances: that I'm living in a fallen world and bad things happen in a fallen world. It's not God's fault that it's a fallen world. Or maybe it's even worse: Maybe it's my fault. Maybe the Lord's trying to get my attention because I have broken the covenant. I am not in obedience. He's trying to get my attention."
How do we respond? Do we respond by seeking the Lord with all our hearts? Do we turn to God's Word? Do we study it? Do we turn to him in prayer? Do we come to our church family and look for counsel and wisdom to take advantage of the spiritual gifts that are among us to help bear one another's burdens? That's what we should do. There's a lesson here for us.
What's happening in this story?
Elijah's solution is to go to Zarephath, to this widow. I'd suggest to you that this widow is in a desperate condition. This is not your prime candidate for relief for our prophet. First of all, she's a resident of Zarephath. What does that mean? Well, it's not Israel; it's in Sidon. She's a foreigner. Worse yet, you know who's from Sidon? Queen Jezebel. When Ahab took a foreign wife, you know where she came from? She was the daughter of the king of Sidon. No wonder the Lord's kind of upset. He created a covenant people and said, "I'm going to separate you from the world. I'm going to keep you holy and separate; I'm going to give you the law, and you're supposed to obey it." What's the first commandment? To have no other gods before God. And Ahab has married a woman who's a worshipper of Baal, a foreigner who is outside the covenant people. This widow is living in the land of Jezebel. Elijah knows that; he's got to have a little nervous step in his walk. He's sending me to Sidon? That's where Jezebel's people are—they're after me. This can't be good; this is not going to turn out well. But he trusts in the Lord, and he's there.
Secondly, this woman is a widow. In that time, the most vulnerable position to be in was to be a widow or an orphan—and by the way, her son is fatherless. You've got a widow and one of the fatherless who are going to help Elijah.
Third, she may not be a worshipper of Baal, but that's the culture she's in. She's in Baal-land. (By the way, it's ironic that Baal is the storm god. He's the one who controls the rain. And how has God sent this punishment on Israel? Withholding the rain. "You shall have no other gods before me": He's going to show he is sovereign over the rain and that Baal is not.)
Lastly, this woman's most desperate condition—well, in terms of the world—is that she's about to die. She and her son are starving to death. She's about to make her last meal. That's her plan for life. Her plan for life is "I'm going to take this last loaf, and my son and I are going to eat it, and we're going to die." That is her plan. That's all she knows. She's in a desperate condition.
Let's go back to verse nine: "Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food." That's good news to Elijah. It all looks bad on the surface, but Yahweh has commanded this widow. Did he tell this widow? Did he give her a word and speak to her? No, but in his plan, he has put a little checklist together and said, "Elijah needs help? Oh yeah, the widow of Zarephath. Check." In his plan, the widow is going to play a role. She doesn't know about it yet, but she's going to be invited in.
Let's talk about desperate conditions for a second. It is only by God's grace that I'm standing here. Most of us here today can say the same thing. We were in some kind of a desperate condition; we may not have been foreigners or widows or facing death or starving, but we shared with the widow a desperate condition. We were living apart from God. We were living on our own terms. I don't know about you, but it didn't work out too well for me. My plans stink. Fortunately, the Lord invited me into his plan, and here I am preaching God's Word. That is God's grace at work. Think about the desperate condition you've come from and how God has delivered you. Every day we should remember that. This is a lesson for us.
Let's look at verses 10 and 11: "So [Elijah] went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, 'Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?' As she was going to get it"—notice this, she's about to die and she's on her last legs, but she's got something inside her: hospitality. She's going to go get this guy a drink.
"As she was going to get it, he called, 'And bring me, please, a piece of bread.' 'As surely as the Lord your God lives,' she replied …" (v. 11-12a).
This widow knows something. First of all, she recognizes Elijah is a follower of Yahweh because she addresses his God by name: "The Lord your God." Maybe she even recognizes Elijah. After all, he is going to be headline news at this time: "Why are we having this drought?" people are asking. "Why are we starving to death?" And what's the answer? "This guy Elijah went to King Ahab and commanded the rain to cease." Elijah is Israel's most wanted man. She may have heard of him. I'm sure he's not dressed like a prophet; he's not advertising, "Here I am—come turn me in to the authorities." But she knows who he is.
Here comes the invitation to faith. God has already appointed her into his plan. He has commanded the widow to help Elijah, and now the invitation comes. She is going to learn how she is going to be involved in that plan. And what is it? Elijah says this: "Bring me a morsel of bread; bring me water."
She needs to do something. She needs to step out in faith, take a simple step. And she declines; she doesn't like the idea. She goes, "Listen, I've got nothing. I'm gathering a couple sticks, and I'm going to die." Now, does he argue with her? Does he approach her and say, "Your plan is awful. What do you believe? Why do you think you're going to die?" Elijah doesn't do that, does he? Look what he says. In verse 13, he says, "Don't be afraid. Go home and do as you have said" He's saying, "No, go on with your plan. You've got your little plan there; you're going to make your last meal and die. You know what? That's fine—that's your plan. I respect that, and you stick to it. But first … in the middle of your great plan to go and die in desperation, first do something for me and for the Lord. Put first things first. Get me a little water, bake me a cake, trust in me, and trust in my God. Bake me a cake."
Isn't that like God? It's not some great theological argument. "Trust me; bake me a cake." That's it. Faith is that simple. Believe and do.
What does she have to believe? She has to believe that this Yahweh, this God of Israel whom she calls Elijah's God, is her God too—that he is sovereign. The first hint that that's true has to be this prophet: Why is this prophet showing up on my doorstep? He was just in the royal palace with the king and queen, and now he's knocking on my door? Is that just coincidence? No, that's divine appointment. She has to believe this is not an accident; this is God's providential hand. She is part of God's world and God's plan. That's good news: to hear that we are part of God's plan, and we're not on our own.
Secondly, she has to trust. All these bad things are going on around her. She has so much to fear. She's going to die, but worse yet, her son is going to die. A mother's son is going to die. What worse fear is there?
But what does Elijah say? "Fear not." That sounds so simple, but it's not. Throughout the Bible, God and Jesus tell us, over and over, "Do not be afraid. Fear not." We have a lot of things to be afraid of. This is a fallen, broken world.
When Heather and I got married, we started finding out things about one another we didn't know—and sometimes you don't want to know. One of the things Heather did was she watched TV. She watched all these true crime shows. You name any horrible type of show—she watched them all. And I said, "What are you doing? What is all this?" She's like, "Don't you understand? This world is a scary, evil place." I really didn't pay attention until our son Sam was born. All of a sudden, after those shows with child abductions left and right, I was never letting him out of my sight. We go to the mall? He's not going around the corner. There's no way. There's a lot to be afraid of: child abduction, drugs, crime. There's a lot to be afraid of in this world.
But the word of the Lord, the word of the Bible, is what? "Fear not." Why? For the widow, the word is "fear not" because Yahweh has invited her into his plan; he sent Elijah there as his agent. Trust him. That's the word to us, too: Trust him because in Christ alone there is hope. He's the one who can heal us. He's the one who can deliver us from our afflictions. He's the one who can forgive our sins. He's the one who can point to our only future. There is hope—so fear not.
How does the widow respond? Go to verse 14 to see the promise of the Lord: "For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: 'The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.'"
Then the widow "went away and did as Elijah had told her" (v. 15). Simple little words there—a little short sentence. "She went away and did as Elijah had told her." This is faith in action. She is saying, "I trust in the Lord, I believe his Word, I know that he is my God too, and I'm going to step out in faith and in obedience." Trust means obedience: "I trust that God will take care of me; therefore I will obey his Word." We hear that in the New Testament, too. Jesus put it very succinctly. He said, "If you love me"—did he say, "Love me back?" No. "If you love me, keep my commands" (John 14:15). Trust is obedience, and obedience is faith in action.
She responds in faith and trust by taking a step, by doing something. What she does she has now given to the Lord. It's an invitation to faith through giving. She's given this man of God—this prophet—hospitality, water. She's baked her last meal in a cake for him. She's going to do all this for him. What has God given her? Faith—the gift of faith. It doesn't come from her. Remember, God has already commanded that she be part of the plan. He's already ordained that she will be one of his people and serve him, and now she's getting the wake-up call: "You're in. The Word of God has come to you. Step out in faith and respond by giving all you have, all your trust. Trust me with your son's life, your life, all your worldly possessions." What is her most precious possession right now? Her son, and she's risking his life by not giving him the last meal and by giving it to Elijah instead. She's giving it all. She's being invited to faith through giving.
Making the connection
Let's sum this story up and then we'll make the connection to the whole Bible story. The covenant God, Yahweh, has withdrawn himself from his covenant people. He's saying, "You have broken the covenant. You are worshipping other gods. You are marrying foreigners. You want to be like the rest of the world? Have it your way." God has pulled up stakes and put his covenant on the shelf. And where has he gone? He's sent his Word and his power of salvation to a poor widow in a pagan, idolatrous country. Isn't that the way God works? He is sovereign over salvation. He will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. That's the summary right there.
How does this fit into the big story? Interestingly, Jesus takes up the story. I'll just read you a passage. Remember the continuity of the Bible story, connecting the threads from story to story. That's what gets me excited.
Let's go to Luke 4. Now, the context: Jesus has just preached and taught in the synagogue in a really hostile place. You know where it was? Nazareth, his hometown. He goes back, he steps up to the pulpit, he's preached, and now he says this: "Truly I tell you … no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land" (v. 24-25).
How is he using this story? He's just been rejected by his hometown, and he's calling attention to a story they would be familiar with—about what? God withdrawing his grace from Israel and sending it to a Gentile nation. What is going to happen in the ministry of Jesus? "His own did not receive him" (John 1:11). So he went and carried the news of the kingdom to those who would hear him: to the Gentiles. Jesus uses the vocabulary of Scripture to condemn his own generation and his own hometown.
What is Jesus rejecting? The Jews of his day thought, We're the covenant people; Yahweh made his covenant with us. He gave us the prophets, he gave us the law, we have the temple, and we have the festivals. We follow the law. In fact, we follow more laws than are in the Bible. We made up a whole bunch—we're so good.
And Jesus said, "Oh, so you have all the badges of being part of the covenant people, but one badge is missing. You know what it is? Your hearts are still stone. Your hearts are not turned to God. Your hearts are not humble. You are not part of God's plan. You have reinvented God's plan and made it your own. Even if you call it God's plan, it's not his."
God desires hearts turned to him, so look around us today in the church. How many people say they're Christians? They don't belong to a church, they don't read the Bible, they don't share the gospel—but they say, "Oh, I'm a Christian. I sincerely believe it in my heart." Sincerity doesn't get you there. Humility gets you there. The power of God gets you there.
How does this story resonate with us today? Is our Christianity just a badge or a label, or are we part of God's plan?
First, you may be here today in a desperate condition. You're weighed down by life, without answers, frustrated, without a plan that works. No matter how many times you amend it, it just keeps failing; things don't seem to work out. It's like one Charlie Brown experience after another. Life's a string of crushing disappointments, broken promises, unrealized dreams, shattered relationships, circumstances that are constantly conspiring against you. What are the symptoms? Depression, anxiety, escape, the need to get out of this life.
Know this: You're not alone. This Bible is filled from end to end with stories of broken people: people who make their own plans and fail at every turn. It's only the power of God intervening in a life that can get you out of your desperate condition. That's all about Jesus. That's where our hope is: only in Jesus. It's not in your own answers. People say, "Well, I just need to make a few changes—if I just had a better job, if I lived in a better place, if I had more money, if I had a better spouse. A few changes." But it's like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Things won't be fine.
It's not in the world's answers. You know what the world tells us? The world wants us to believe everything in life is possibility. Six-pack abs are just a $59 subscription away. Buy a lottery ticket and your financial freedom is here. There are preachers out there who say, "You know what? You just have to grab onto God's promises and take them for yourself. You tell God what to do and what you need."
But the Bible says otherwise. The Bible says life is impossibility. We can't do anything. Without God, we're dead, we're helpless, and we're pathetic. It's when we realize there is no help in ourselves, no help in the world, that we see God's light. God will put us in that desperate condition. He will make us poor, he will make us sick, he will put us on our backs to get us to look up to him in heaven. He puts us in a desperate condition so that he is our only hope.
If you're in that condition, Jesus said this: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28). What is that rest? How do you obtain that rest? Only by faith in Jesus. Only by believing that he is the Son of God. God sent him into the world to live a perfect life, to be tempted in every way and to die on the Cross, and by his shed blood he paid our penalty for sin. By his blood we are healed; we are forgiven. He was buried—a human being, dead and buried—and God raised him to life, saying, "I accept your sacrifice on behalf of my people, my covenant people: those who turn to you in faith." He gave us more than forgiveness of sins; he gave us the promise of eternal life. If you're here today and don't know Christ, there is hope: hope for the present and hope for your eternal future. Trust in him. Believe and repent.
If you're already a believer and you already know Christ, I suggest that the invitation to faith isn't a one-time card in the mail that you read and send back your reply and it's all done. The invitation to faith is repeated every day. Every time we open the Bible, every time we hear God's Word, it's an invitation to faith and faithfulness.
What can we do to respond to that invitation today? Again, what did the widow do? She gave everything she had. She gave her entire life—her resources, her son, her own existence—and turned it over to God, trusted in him. What do we have to give? We have our time. Are we giving our time to the Lord, or are we too busy to put him in our planner? Are we giving him our talents? Are we stewarding those spiritual gifts we've been given? And why have we been given them? For the health of our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, right here in our local church. The spiritual gifts are to equip one another and lift one another up. Are we doing that to our fullest potential? Are we accepting that invitation and responding? Third, we have treasure to give. When John the Baptist preached, he said to repent and believe because the kingdom was at hand. It was a great message—people believed. Then they said, "Well, what do we do? What's the first step?" Remember what he said? He said three things, but one thing he said was this: "Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same" (Luke 3:11). If there's a surplus in your life, if you're storing up treasures for yourself, there's no richness in that. If you have two cloaks, give one away. If you have ample resources for yourself, give the rest away. Trust in God.
The invitation to faith goes out to all of us today. It's an invitation to salvation; it's an invitation to growing in Christ. The invitation goes out, and we're called to respond. The good news is this: When we give all that we have to the Lord in faith and trust, we can trust him to provide everything we need, and a whole lot more.
Will Stevens is the Vice President of Giving Strategies for WaterStone. Will is currently working towards his DMin and PhD degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with a focus on an Old Testament theology of giving and recently finished his book God’s Givers: Seven Old Testament Stories of Fearless Giving.