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Sermon preached on 1 Kings 17 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 01/12/2020 in Novato, CA.
Being in denial of the truth is never helpful. Even if you don’t like the truth, you might as well learn it and accept it and do your best to move forward in light of it. As we begin a journey through this section of confrontation between the wicked King Ahab of Israel versus the prophet Elijah, who came in the power of the Lord, we are reminded the truth of God’s Word. And that truthful Word of the LORD can especially be hard to hear when it unveils our sin. Yet, it is truth we need, even as it was a truth Ahab and all Israel needed.
We begin our story by being quickly introduced to Elijah the prophet as he confronts King Ahab of Israel. In the name of the LORD that prophet declares to Ahab a drought upon the land. Elijah’s words in verse 1 speak of a drought so great that not only rain but even the dew would be held back! We know from the Bible that this drought would last for three and a half years. But at this point, Ahab is only told one thing about how long the drought would last. It would last until Elijah the prophet speaks to lift it.
Why would God send a drought upon his people? Well, it was one of the many covenant curses that God had threatened through Moses back in Deuteronomy 28:23-24 if the people forsook the LORD God. King Ahab and almost all Israel with them had begun to worship the false god Baal and the false goddess Asherah. They had violated the chief of commandments given by God in their law by having other gods before God. And so, Elijah as a prophet of the LORD was serving as a covenant lawyer to declare the terms of the covenant. They were in violation of the covenant and so Elijah was declaring that the sanctions of the covenant were coming upon them. But why of all the covenant curses that God threatened did he send drought? Well, it seems especially fitting in light of Israel’s major defection to Baal worship. You see, Baal was worshipped by pagans especially as the god who sent rain. This drought would show such reverence in Baal to be misplaced – Baal wouldn’t be able to send rain because he was not real. Elijah, the prophet of the LORD, would be able to send rain – or withhold it – because he was serving on behalf of the one true God over all creation.
So then, Elijah here declares no more rain or dew until he speaks to lift it. But then notice verses 2-3. The word of the LORD comes to Elijah and calls him into hiding. Now, often it’s assumed that this was to protect Elijah from persecution. Surely there would be good reason to think that. By next chapter it’s very clear that Queen Jezebel had been trying to kill all the prophets of the LORD as part of her efforts to establish Baal worship and destroy the worship of the LORD. And yet while there may be truth that God’s calling Elijah into hiding does keep him out of Jezebel’s reach, it seems that’s not the primary point here. Again, when would this drought be lifted? Only when Elijah speaks to lift it. If there is no Elijah to be found, then there is no one who can lift the drought. Next chapter we’ll learn that during this time of the drought, Ahab has searched every nation and kingdom to try to find Elijah. When Ahab finally sees Elijah again, next chapter, Ahab will call Elijah the “troubler of Israel” because he knows that Elijah spoke this drought upon the land. But Elijah will in turn reply that it is Ahab who has troubled Israel by turning form the LORD unto the worship of Baal.
But in the meantime, this passage records Elijah’s time in hiding. It’s a time when Ahab and Israel should be remembering their sin and mourning over it and looking to repent from it. Meanwhile, God provides for Elijah during this time. God would sustain Elijah through this drought so God could use him for his redemptive purposes.
First, God provides for Elijah at the brook Cherith. This is probably somewhere east of the Jordan river, in the Gilead region. There, on the one hand God provides through normal providence for Elijah, because he’s able to drink from this brook – that is until it too dries up because of the drought. On the other hand, God provides bread and meat for Elijah through the extraordinary means of ravens. God commanded the ravens who somehow deliver such food to Elijah morning and evening. It all is rather reminiscent of how God provided for Israel during their time of the wilderness wandering after the Exodus. Though it is noteworthy that God provides this bread and meat from ravens which were unclean animals according to the law and themselves not to be eaten. Based on the law, you wouldn’t except to see God advocating someone to eat something that had come into contact with an unclean animal as you would expect that food to become unclean itself by its contact with something unclean. Yet God provides sustenance to Elijah even from these unclean birds.
Next, God provides for Elijah via this widow at Zarephath. Interestingly, God surely could have supernaturally made that brook at Cherith not run out of water. But obviously God instead wanted to send Elijah to this widow at Zarephath. That God would have Elijah provided for from a widow, is interesting in and of itself. A widow at that time was fairly synonymous with being poor and destitute. Widows needs to be provided for, not the other way around. And this widow was obviously in dire straits in the midst of this drought. Not only did she have some young son to somehow provide for, but it sounds like that were down to their last meal and had given up all hope of survival for themselves. So, this was a true widow, with no one to help her – and God was sending Elijah to ask for help from her!
Yet, what is even more striking here than her being a widow is that she is a widow in Zarephath. As verse 9 tells us, that’s a town in Sidon, an area in Phoenicia between Tyre and Sidon. In other words, it wasn’t in the Promised Land among God’s people. This was Gentile land and she was surely an unclean Gentile woman. Likely this widow was not a worshipper of the one true God yet as we see her initial words in verse 12 refer to Yahweh, the God of Israel, as “your” God, when speaking to Elijah.
What’s arguably the most striking fact here is that we are surely meant to connect the dots here and recognize that Sidon is the homeland of Queen Jezebel. Remember, King Ahab had been married to the Baal-advocating princess from Sidon named Jezebel. Baal hadn’t been able to help the people of Israel amidst the drought. Well, Baal was obviously not able to help in the land of Sidon which was supposed to be his domain. Because here you have this poor widow and her son at death’s door who were supposedly under the care of the powerless Baal.
So, God sends Elijah to the unlikely help of this Gentile woman. The one true God of Israel provides for Elijah through this widow. But more than that, God provides for the widow and her son at the same time. Where the false god Baal was powerless to help, God provides miraculously for the widow and her son and also Elijah. God keeps her jars of flour and oil from running out until the drought is lifted. Notice that God does this miracle through first calling the widow to have faith in the word of the LORD. As the widow is preparing for her last supper for her and her son, and then to die, Elijah asks her to first feed him. But he gives her the prophetic assurance in the name of the LORD that her oil and flour will not run out until the drought is lifted, verse 14. She does this, putting her faith in the prophetic word. And in that, God keeps his promise and provides for them when so many across the land were surely hungry and some probably starving to death.
It’s here we should recognize the application that Jesus gave at Nazareth when the people from his hometown didn’t honor him or his preaching. Jesus referenced this event of Elijah and said that Elijah was not sent to any widows in Israel at that time, but to this widow in Sidon. Jesus said that as a rebuke to the Israelites in Nazareth for how they weren’t honoring the prophetic word he was bringing them. Jesus’ rebuke had the intended effect. They became angry, Luke 4:28. Jesus provoked them to anger by reminding them how God would save some poor Gentile widow and her son when so many Israelites suffered without help from God. Jesus’ words made them angry just as Moses had long before said should happen. This is what I referenced a couple weeks ago from the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:21. Moses had predicted there would come a time that Israel would anger God by going after gods that weren’t real gods. So, Moses said God would respond by going after peoples who weren’t a people. In other words, God’s care of this Sidonian widow was meant to be a rebuke to Israel. God saved this pagan widow and son while letting Israel hunger and thirst in this drought. That was a rebuke to Israel for their forsaking of God. They forsook the God who had always provided for them, so God forsook them and helped some Gentiles instead in order to awaken them to their sin. After their initial anger and jealousy, they were supposed to repent and cry out to God for mercy and forgiveness.
Verse 17 then moves us forward in time. God had been providing miraculously for Elijah, and the widow, and her son. But then the son grows ill and dies! Apart from the obvious heartbreak of a mother losing her son, for the son to die is also for the widow to lose her long-term hope for provision. Back then a widow in her old age would be provided for by her sons. So, there is multiple ways that the son’s death would have adversely affected the widow too. Well, the widow is beside herself. She goes to Elijah and while her words come across pretty brashly, don’t miss what she acknowledges. She acknowledges her sin. She says that Elijah’s presence among them has apparently served to remind her of her sin by the fact that her son died. This is a profound recognition of her. She recognizes and admits that her sin brings death and even deserves death. And so, she goes to the only one she now thinks can help her – the prophet of the LORD.
Elijah doesn’t disagree with her assessment, for he takes the boy upstairs, to his room, puts him on his bed, and starts to pray to God. Elijah acknowledges to God that God killed the boy! He then so boldly prays for the boy to be raised from the dead. The whole event is amazing if you think about it from the Bible’s perspective on such things. The law was pretty clear that touching a dead body would make someone ceremonially unclean for a week (Numbers 19:11). Being ceremonially unclean meant, for example, you weren’t supposed to draw near to God at the temple for worship until you were made clean again. Here Elijah fully embraces this unclean dead body and three times stretches himself out upon the boy upon Elijah’s own bed, praying to God. Then the miracle and joy of verse 22. Elijah who should have been deemed unclean himself with his contact with the boy, has God hear him and answer his prayer!
Look at the effect the boy’s resurrection had on the mother. Verse 24, “And the woman said to Elijah, ‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth.’” That’s a major function of miracles in the Bible. They confirm the word of the LORD. Here, because of such a miracle, the widow has been strengthened in her faith that Elijah is truly a prophet of God and that the LORD God of Israel speaks what is true. So then, God’s miracle through Elijah not only raised the boy from death but worked salvation in the widow to know the LORD as savior and God.
So then, having walked through the main points of this passage, let me stand back and point you to Jesus Christ. This passage highlighted the powerful ministry of Elijah. Elijah is shown to be an authorized servant of the one true God to accomplish God’s redemptive purposes. As this text presents Elijah to us, we should look beyond Elijah to one greater than him. We should look beyond to Jesus Christ. It would be later prophesied that the Messiah would not come until first Elijah returned to prepare the way. The New Testament shows us that John the Baptist represented the return of Elijah. But the New Testament also shows that John’s ministry was not marked with signs and wonders like Elijah’s was. But Jesus’ ministry was. Jesus’ ministry came with the divine power that Elijah wielded and all the more. Think then of some of the lessons that this passage teaches us that then drives us even more so to think of these lessons in light of the powerful ministry and witness of Jesus Christ.
Lesson number one: our sustenance comes from God. This passage shows God greatly restricting the provision of sustenance to the land with this long drought. Meanwhile God shows he could continue to provide daily sustenance to those he desired. He did that for Elijah first at the brook and that at Zarephath with the widow. This makes us think backward in time to when God provided for Israel in the wilderness with water from rocks and manna from the sky. At that time, Moses said God sent manna from the sky to teach them to rely on God, but most specifically, to realize that man needed more than bread. He said man needed to be sustained by the Word of God, Deuteronomy 8:3. With God having the prophet Elijah go into hiding, Israel not only had a famine of food, they also had a famine of the Word. So then, with Jesus, we remember how he also worked in power to drive home that lesson. In power, he fed the four thousand and five thousand miraculously. Yet when some came back to him looking for more physical bread, he told they needed something more to sustain them. He said that he himself was the bread of life which God sent down from heaven to sustain their souls. May this lesson today of Elijah and sustenance point us again to Jesus as the bread of life to sustain our souls!
Lesson number two: our life comes from God. This passage shows God take the life of the widow’s boy to then give it back in a miraculous resurrection. God used Elijah to accomplish this resurrection. In God’s providence, how many Israelite boys died during that time of the famine, yet God sovereignly chose to raise up this one Sidonian boy in resurrection. In this God taught through Elijah that, unlike Baal, God truly had power over life and death. You know, this miracle to raise from the dead is an extra special miracle. In the Old Testament, only two people specifically are seen as possessing the ability to raise someone from the dead: Elijah and Elisha. Such wonder working wasn’t seen again until the coming of Jesus Christ who did it more than all of them. The apostles Peter and Paul, clearly in the stead of Christ are also recorded as raising someone from the dead. But this is rare. Yet, as with all miracles, these resurrections were also meant to look beyond the specific miracle. They need to point us to a resurrection to eternal life. Jesus explained this for us when he raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus said in John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” May this resurrection today through Elijah point us again to Jesus as the source for a resurrection beyond this life, to everlasting life!
Lesson number three: God can make the unclean clean and those who think they are clean unclean. This goes back to the introduction for today. Ahab and all Israel with them thought they were doing fine in their wickedness and thought they knew the truth. In sin, they’d worship the lie of Baal and ignore the prophetic word which called them to repent. If they took pride in their spiritual past and that they were a holy and pure people, they were wrong. They had become as unclean ones in their sin and embracing of pagan idols. Meanwhile, God was bringing clean out of the unclean. This passage shows Elijah sustained by unclean birds and an unclean widow. Yet when coming into contact with the unclean, even that unclean dead boy, he made clean the unclean. That was illustrated with the life coming back into the boy. In this, God made that unclean Gentile widow clean, bringing her faith in the one true God and his word. I love how she came to a point of recognizing her sin and crying out to God for help. Isn’t that a picture of our salvation in Jesus? Making the unclean clean through repentance and faith? How beautifully this is pictured even in how Elijah raised the boy from the dead. Elijah identified with the unclean dead boy as he even laid the boy’s corpse on his own bed and touched him. Jesus likewise became unclean on the cross, bearing our sin and shame, so we could be made clean. And what God has made clean, let no one call unclean. For both Jew and Gentile, faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior means that we have been made clean and have the surety of eternal life in the resurrection.
So then, let me sum up all this with a few final exhortations. To the Ahabs and Israelites of the world – those who are outwardly in the visible church but have gone far astray from the LORD: this passage gives a call to let go of delusional thinking and instead repent and return to Christ and his word. To the widows of Zarephath – all those who are poor outsiders to the church: humbly honor God by repenting of your sins and look to God in Christ to save you; if so you will be grafted into his people and become an insider, cleansed from all your sins. To the faithful remnant of God’s people in the church represented by Elijah in this passage – may we see that we have a ministry not only to the convert lost outsiders into insiders but also to try to bring back wayward insiders who have become outsiders.
May the Lord work in power to grow our hearts today. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.