Go, Sell the Oil

Sermon preached on 2 Kings 4:1-7 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Online Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/26/2020.

Sermon Manuscript

We enter a distinct section in 2 Kings where we find a series of miracles performed through the prophet Elisha. In some ways, these miracles look back on similar happenings under Elijah. That shows how Elisha is the successor of Elijah. For example, our passage today has echoes back to Elijah’s miracle with the widow at Zarephath in 1 Kings 17 whose jar of oil and jar of flour did not run out until after the drought ended. Yet, there are important differences when we make these comparisons. One difference is that there is a greater number of these miracles recorded by Elisha. Another difference seems an emphasis in ministering these miracles among the faithful living in Israel.

God’s presence and power is being manifested to this remnant through Elisha. Elisha’s miracles would bring blessings from God upon the faithful. These miracles would solve their immediate needs and help to lift some of the effects of God’s curses that he had put upon the wayward nation as a whole. But much like the miracles Jesus would later do, they look beyond to something better. God’s curses upon Israel at that time were part of the larger plan of God to form a special people holy and righteous unto himself. That work has continued even today as God builds that people through the ministry of the new covenant church. But the light of the New Testament has shown us that this will not be completed until Christ’s return. Then Christ will usher a perfected people into the eternal glory of the age to come. Then, finally, God’s people would no longer experience any curses. Instead we will only know God’s blessings in the full. Elisha’s miracles here bring a foretaste of those final blessings that await God’s people in glory. God used Elisha’ ministry to bring his blessed presence and power among Israel.

In today’s passage, we find this foretaste of divine blessing with regard to dealing with the debt of a widow and her two fatherless sons. It’s a story of how God brings them redemption from that debt and more. Let’s dig into the passage by looking first at the widow’s plea for help. Beginning in verse 1, we see that she was the wife of one of the “sons of the prophets.” We mentioned previously that the “sons of the prophets” referred to disciples of the prophets, possibly pursuing being prophets themselves. We saw before that Elijah had been the spiritual father of these groups of the “sons of the prophets.” We’ve seen how Elisha had then taken on that role. So then, this widow comes to her deceased husband’s spiritual father and mentor for help.

Notice that as she presents her family’s current dilemma, she points out to Elisha something that he already knows. She says to Elisha, “You know that your servant feared the LORD.” She points out what he already knows to highlight this fact in the context of the request. On the one hand, she may be making the case of why God should help them. Her husband had been a faithful follower of the LORD. On the other hand, she may also be expressing the challenge God’s people face when they experience great trial. Being a faithful follower of God doesn’t exempt you from the trials of this life. We might expect that it would. And if any time in history you might expect it to be the case, it might be under the Mosaic Covenant. Remember, God held out under the Mosaic Covenant material blessing for obedience and material curse for disobedience. Yet, an overly simplistic approach to that has not proven to be accurate. First, none of them were as faithful in the full that God would require. Second, there was aspects of those blessings and curses for both an individual and corporate level. And so we see that even at that time a faithful follower of the LORD may be asked to endure some trial or tribulation.

So then, we see her plea for help at the end of verse 1. They had an outstanding debt. The creditor is ready to take the two sons as servants because the debt had not been paid. We might note that the creditor would have been within his strict legal rights to do so. For example, Leviticus 25 would have allowed for a debt to be paid through the servitude of a person. That passage does place certain legal restrictions including that at most the person would have to serve until the Year of Jubilee. At that point, such indebted servants would be set free. Of course, the Year of Jubilee only came once every fifty years in Israel. So, Leviticus 25 also allows for the right of redemption at any time – that someone could be bought back from their master and become a freedman.

As a side note, we should be on guard against making unwarranted side judgments here. The text hasn’t condemned the creditor here. Yes, me might hope for a gracious creditor to such a widow – but maybe he was! The text doesn’t tell us anything more about him. But there is nothing said here that explicitly condemns the creditor. Likewise, we might be tempted to blame the family for unwise borrowing that got them into such debt. While it’s possible that was the reason they got into debt, the text doesn’t tell us the reason. Interestingly, the Jewish historian Josephus identifies this deceased husband as the Obadiah from back in 1 Kings 18 who hid away the 100 prophets in caves and fed them while Jezebel sought to kill them. Josephus says that this is what put their family in debt – their commendable effort to try to save those prophets. While it’s not possible to verify Josephus’ account, the possibility reminds us that there very well may have been a quite honorable reason why this family had fallen into such major debt. Let us then refrain from making unwarranted judgment for either the creditor or the debtors.

And so those two side notes are to get us to focus on what is the issue presented here. There was a widow and two fatherless sons who were in a real need because of this debt. The sons were at the edge of falling into servitude. Even beyond that most immediate need, we see that there is also a concern that the widow doesn’t bring before Elisha. Not only are they in dire straights because of this debt they can’t pay, but they also don’t have anything to live on in general. When Elisha inquires further about what they do have, we then learn she is down to their last jar of oil. That’s all they have to live off of, let alone to repay this debt.

We might also mention that in those days, the long-term hope for a widow beyond the possibility of remarriage is sons. You might recall the story of Ruth and Naomi. Naomi notes that her situation was so bleak because they had no sons. Sons could have grown up and taken care of the family land and business. Sons would provide for their widowed mothers in their old age. Yet, if these sons are taken from her until who knows when the next year of Jubilee is – or if that practice is even followed in a wayward nation – then you see how desperate this situation is for the widow. Her concern is not only with the immediate need of the debt, but long term there is need for her daily bread and sustenance. All that is in addition to the need for the sons to not have to fall into servitude. I’m sure as a mother that is the last thing this widow would want!

Well, the widow went to the right place for help. By coming to Elisha with this plea, she was coming to the one true God with her plea. The Bible records that God in general has concern for the poor and needy among his people. But the Bible especially records God’s concern for the widow and the fatherless. In fact, there were various provisions built into the law that expressed God’s concern for such. This included the Year of Jubilee provision, as well as other provisions such as gleaning, the levirate law, regulations on lending, and more.

So then, we look next at God’s response to the widow through Elisha. Verse 2 records Elisha’s immediate heart of concern. God’s heart for the widow and fatherless is seen there. Right away, Elisha’s first response is to ask, “What shall I do for you?” As a side note, what a telling contrast with Elisha’s initial response last chapter to the plea of the king. Remember, last chapter King Jehoram came to Elisha for help and Elisha’s initial words were a rebuke to the king. Here, some unnamed but faithful widow is met with eagerness to help from Elisha, while the king was met with reluctance from Elisha. In fact, Elisha said then he was only willing to help King Jehoram since King Jehoshaphat was there. So, there is encouragement right then and there. While a follower of God might wonder why trouble comes to them in this life, we should be encouraged that we have a sure resource of prayer and the guarantee of an audience of the LORD. The wicked do not have such a guarantee.

So then, Elisha inquires with her about what she has and explains a way for her to resolve this debt. Obviously, what he is describing is going to be a miracle. I think it is fitting that he as the spiritual father of the deceased provides a way to keep the kids out of slavery. This is basically a form of a redemption, and as the spiritual father, you could think of it as a form of the kinsman redeemer concept. In Israel, the laws for redemption really call for those closest relatives to rise up and redeem their enslaved relatives. Here, as the spiritual father of this family, he acts as a sort of kinsman redeemer in provide the way to buy the freedom of the sons.

Yet it is interesting the way that God provides through Elisha here. She and her sons are basically given a sort of test of faith. They have to go gather up jars from the neighbors and then go and start filling them within the privacy of their home. That’s a test of faith that they pass, praise the LORD. Even the proportion of oil seems connected with the proportion of faith – the oil keeps flowing until they ran out of jars. It seems she would have had as much oil as jars she gathered. Elisha even told her in verse 3 to gather a lot of jars. It is also interesting to see that God uses their small amount of oil to save them. To them, that flask of oil seemed to represent what they didn’t have. Verse 2, she says we have nothing left save this jar of oil. Yet, with what little they did have, God chose to work from that to bless them with supernatural blessings.

So then, notice the last thing about how God responds to her original plea. In verse 7, we see that God blesses her with more than she asks for. She had only presented the need concerning the debt. But when she reports back to Elisha he tells her that she should sell the oil for money and that she will have enough to not only pay off the debt but also extra for them to then live off of as a family. And so, while we saw that she had more problems than just the debt, she had only asked for help with the debt. But the generous and merciful God blessed her so that both her needs would be addressed. I think of that quote in Ephesians 3:20 that says that this is part of the character of God. God is one who “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.” We see here how our God often blesses us above and beyond what we ask!

So then, in the midst of dark times in Israel, God provides blessing through Elisha for this faithful family of the LORD. This beautiful in the immediate help it brought the family. But it is also beautiful as the themes seen here look to a greater provision for us in Jesus Christ. Think of what we see here. He relieves this widow and her sons from indebtedness. He also gives them a provision of plenty and abundance for their ongoing needs. But recognize that this provision was not eternal. Just like how the widow of Zarephath under Elijah didn’t receive an unending fountain of oil and flour, the same is true here. The widow of Zarephath’s flour and oil did stop flowing miraculously after the drought ended. Here, the widow and her sons only filled up as much oil as they had jars. It’s not like they could have then ran out later, gotten more jars, and then come back and started filling up again. No, they were given a bountiful provision, but it only lasted so long. Eventually all the jars of miracle oil were sold off and all the money used up from its proceeds. We don’t know how long it lasted, but it didn’t last forever.

You see, these provisions were not eternal. You could say these provisions were provisional. They looked forward to a great redemption that God would bring his people. The looked forward to an enduring supply of sustenance and bounty that God would one day bring his people. But that time was not yet. I speculate that maybe that is why God had them fill these jars inside their home with the door closed. They were getting special treatment, because they were getting something of the age to come. There would come a time when all God’s people would have an eternal and unending supply of daily provisions. But that wasn’t at that time. God through Elisha blessed this house with a foretaste of what was to come. But the universal receipt of such blessing was still in the future for God’s people. There yet remained a mighty redemption and provision for God’s people in the future.

Think of how we find this announced and inaugurated with the coming of Christ. We’ve been talking about this idea of redemption today. Jesus Christ came into this world as the ultimate kinsman redeemer of his people. He began his ministry coming to his own to announce redemption. Sadly, so many of them rejected him. But this is how he began his ministry – announcing the spiritual Year of Jubilee. Luke 4:18, quoting Isaiah, Jesus proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus said that prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled with his reading of it. Jesus came to redeem his people who were slaves to sin. We had a debt of sin so great that we could not ever pay it. If it were not for Christ, there would never be a year of jubilee to declare our liberation. But that is exactly why Jesus came into this world. By his precious blood he purchased us from sin and death. We have been redeemed by his sacrifice on the cross for our sake. And he has now placed his Spirit within us so that we have him as the Bread of Life and as the unending Living Waters within us to satisfy our souls.

Recognize that when Jesus came, he announced and inaugurated this blessing of redemption and bountiful sustenance. It has not yet come in the fullness of what it will be when the Lord Jesus returns. We see that fact illustrated by what the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:21-23. Speaking first of physical slavery, Paul wrote, “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord.” Let me explain that quote. He’s saying if you are in this life a bondservant of someone – don’t sweat it, because in Christ you a freedman. A “freedman” is a technical term for someone who has been redeemed out of the state of being a bondservant. Why am I quoting Paul here? It makes the obvious point that the redemption Christ brought at his first coming liberates us spiritually, but not necessarily physically. You might be a Christian widow whose sons ends up in some form of servitude. (Today our society has cleaned up how that looks but we still have forms of such – they are just called Visa, Mastercard, Student Loans, etc.) Likewise, being a Christian doesn’t mean we always have our physical daily bread in abundance – even though our souls have an unending supply of nourishment in Jesus.

See the point? We have a real redemption right now by the fact that we are saved from eternal perdition. We have a real source of sustenance for our souls in Jesus Christ and his Word and Spirit. But in terms of the physical enjoyment of such blessings – we don’t necessarily have that right now. But don’t think it’s not coming. Many Old Testament prophets promised that this is coming. One such prophet is Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 47:12 it promises this future sustenance for God’s people. Speaking of a river, it says, “On both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month… Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” Revelation 22:2 speaks of this same prophecy and says it lies ahead for us when Christ returns in the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven onto a new earth where we will dwell with God in liberty forever.

And so, the provisional, temporary miracle here with this widow and her sons was a foretaste of this promised future that will one day arrive in the fullness for God’s people. We rejoice at the foretastes of glory that God’s people have been given down through the ages. We too have been given a foretaste of that future with the Holy Spirit within us. And we have been given the Word of God to describe what that future will look like that awaits us.

How ought we to live in light of all this? One practical application is our diaconal ministry. While we surely won’t be able to solve all poverty among God’s people, may we look to help those in physical needs in our midst because that’s part of the character of God toward us. Especially during this season of a pandemic, may we be ready to help where needed. Let us delight in mimicking our heavenly father in our care especially for the widows and fatherless in our midst.


Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.