The Widow Directed to the Widow’s God: The Widow of Zarephath by John Angell James, 1841
An example of trust in God—and kindness to needy widows.
The prophet Elijah, after having been miraculously fed during a long famine, by ravens at the brook Cherith, found it necessary to leave his retreat in consequence of the drying-up of the stream which had hitherto supplied him with water. There is a mysterious sovereignty running through all the ways of God, extending also to his miraculous operations. He works no such miracles, nor gives such wondrous signs, than the exigency of the case needs. He who sent meat by a bird of prey, could have caused the brook still to resist the exhausting power of the drought, or have brought water out of the stones which lay in its dry bed—but he did not see fit to do so. When the brook fails, however, God has a Zarephath for his servant; and a widow, instead of ravens, shall now feed him. For all creatures are equally God’s servants, and he is never at a loss for instruments either of ‘power to destroy his enemies’—or of ‘love to support and help his friends’. What he does not find, he can make—and here, therefore, is a firm ground of our confidence in him, “Those who know his name will put their trust in him.”
“Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.” Everything in the injunction must have been confounding to human reason. “What! go to Zarephath! a city outside the boundaries of the land of promise!—the native country of Jezebel, my bitterest foe! Go to such a distance in a time of famine! What am I to do, and how am I to be fed on my long and toilsome journey? And when I shall have arrived there, am I to be dependent on a woman, and she a widow?” Did Elijah reason, and question, and cavil thus? Nothing of the sort—for what is difficult to reason, is easy to faith! God had commanded, and his commands imply promises. It was enough, “Go, for God sends you!” And he went—doubting nothing, asking nothing, fearing nothing!
Arrived at the vicinity of the place about evening time, and looking around, of course, for the female hand that was at once to guide him to a home, and feed him too—Elijah saw a poor woman gathering a few sticks, which the long drought had scattered in abundance. Her occupation, as well as her appearance, proclaimed her poverty. He saw no one else. “Can that be my benefactress?” we can imagine him asking himself. Remembering, however, the ravens who had been his caterers for a whole year, he knew that help could come by the hand of even the feeble instrument of a poor widow! An impression, such as those who had been accustomed to receive revelations from God well understood, assured him that his deliverer was before him.
“So he 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?” Such a request was asking for more than gold. Yet awed by the prophet’s appearance, and influenced by the prophet’s God, she set out immediately in quest of the precious liquid—but was stopped to hear another request—”Bring me a piece of bread, too.” This second request drew from the poor woman one of the most touching statements that poverty ever made—”I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour left in the jar and a little cooking oil in the bottom of the jug. I was just gathering a few sticks to cook this last meal—and then my son and I will die!”
Alas! poor mother, your condition is sad indeed! You are, in your own apprehension, about to make your last meal, with your fatherless child, and then with him to yield yourselves to death. It was time for the prophet to visit this widow, to whom he was evidently sent, more on heraccount than his own. How little could she have imagined when she uttered that sorrowful confession of destitution—that help was at hand, and a rich supply at her very door! How opportunely does God provide supports for our distresses. It is his glory to begin to help—when hope seems to end—and to send assistance in his own way, when ours all fail—that our help may be so much the more welcome and precious, by how much the less it is expected—and thus redound to his own praise, as much as it is for our comfort.
Elijah full of prophetic impulse, as well as urged by hunger, said to her, “Don’t be afraid! Go ahead and cook that ‘last meal,’ but bake me a little loaf of bread first. Afterward there will still be enough food for you and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There will always be plenty of flour and oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again!” What answer to this, would he have received from all who were not as full of faith as this poor widow? She might have said, “Charity begins at home. My child has claims upon me, and I have a claim upon and for myself, which it is impossible to forego or forget for any other claim—and I am surprised at a request which would take the last morsel from both of us—to feed a stranger!”
And I do not hesitate to say, that her compliance with the injunction, can be justified only on the ground of her faith in the promise. That she did believe the promise is evident—and equally so, that this faith was the gift of God to her soul. This was faith, and of no ordinary strength; it made her willing “to spend upon one she had never seen before, a part of the little she had, in hope of more; to part with the means of present support, which she saw, in confidence of future supplies, which she could not see; and thus oppose her senses and her reason to exercise her belief in God’s word.” (Hall). She went and did according to the saying of Elijah. And now, we ask, was she deceived by the failure of the promise—or rewarded by the fulfillment of the promise? When did one word that God has spoken fall to the ground? Thus stands the record—”So she did as Elijah said, and she and Elijah and her son continued to eat from her supply of flour and oil for many days. For no matter how much they used, there was always enough left in the containers, just as the Lord had promised through Elijah.”
Behold then, this man of God cheerfully sitting down in her solitary cottage. Surely ‘the voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tabernacles of the righteous;’ for ‘the right hand of the Lord,’ on their behalf, ‘does valiantly.’ They rejoice together, not only on account of temporal blessings—but much more on account of those which are spiritual. Israel had lost Elijah—and a poor widow in a heathen land has found him! Thus often does it fare with a people, who, though they have been privileged with the most faithful preaching of the gospel, will not turn unto the Lord with all their heart, and walk uprightly before him. They are cursed with a famine of the Word of God; the children’s bread is taken from them, and imparted to others whom they account no better than dogs, who however ‘will receive it,’ and are languishing for it. Indeed our Lord himself thus applies this part of sacred history to the case of the people of Nazareth, who refused to receive his ministry—”Certainly there were many widows in Israel who needed help in Elijah’s time, when there was no rain for three and a half years and hunger stalked the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a widow of Zarephath—a foreigner in the land of Sidon.”
Here then the prophet dwells quite happy under the widow’s roof. All distress has disappeared. “For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.” Neither does their spiritual sustenance fail. Well might this poor widow rejoice in the privilege of sitting daily at the feet of this man of God, for instruction in divine things! Can we doubt for a moment that the prophet most gladly opened his mouth in divine wisdom, to impart it to the soul of this simple believing sister? Can we doubt that they prayed together, that they read together out of Moses and the prophets, that they conversed together of the day of Christ, which Abraham saw with gladness? And would they not, do you think, occasionally raise a spiritual song to the honor of their Lord and Savior? How swiftly and how pleasantly must the hours have passed with them; and well might the angels of God have rejoiced, as no doubt they did—over this little church in the wilderness! Behold here then, my brethren, the bright and happy termination of a path, which commenced in such thick darkness! Only let all the children of God implicitly follow his guidance, and he will assuredly conduct them to a glorious end!
The trials of this poor widow, however, consisted not of her poverty alone. The child miraculously snatched from the jaws of famine was still mortal, as the event proved—for he sickened and died. In her behavior under this new trial, we see that her faith, as a believer, was sadly mixed with her infirmity as a woman; and that her faith did not shine with the same luster in this new trial, as it did in the former one.What poor changeable creatures we are—and how insufficient is ‘past grace’ for present duties and afflictions! Perhaps, we are sometimes as apt to presume upon past experience, as we are, at other seasons, to forget it.
She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin—and kill my son?” This was the language of ignorance and intense emotion, which we would hardly have expected from one who had seen the miracle of the barrel of flour, and cruse of oil. This shows how sorrow is apt to becloud the judgment and to exasperate the feelings—and at the same time, how affliction is apt to revive the recollections of past and even pardoned sin! Elijah, with a touching gentleness, which instructs us how to bear with the ‘petulant complaints of intense grief’, bore with her admonition, and restored the child to life, and to the arms of his joyful and grateful mother. Her faith and confidence—a little shaken by the trial—returned with her son’s life, and she lived, with him, to praise and glorify God.
And now let those to whom this beautiful narrative is especially applicable, take it to themselves, and apply it their own sad and sorrowful hearts. And who are they? The widows that are left in circumstances of deep poverty, who have only a handful of flour, as it were, in the barrel, and a little oil in the cruse; and who after eating this last supply, are preparing to yield themselves to destitution or death.
Afflicted woman, my heart bleeds for you! The provider for your own comfort and that of your children is gone! The hand of the diligent that once made you, if not rich, yet comfortable—lies lifeless in the grave—and it is your bitter lot to see the little which he left you, continually being consumed—without your knowing, or even being able to conjecture—how the empty barrel is to be replenished! It is for such as you, to remember the words of Jehovah, “And let your widows trust in me!” You have no other trust, and none are so much encouraged to trust in God, as they whose sole confidence, the Lord is.
Now, above all times, is the time to look up with hope to God—when we have no other to look up to. What promises are upon record for your consolation. Having already laid them before you, I will only refer to a few of them. What sweet language is that in Psalm 34:1-10, and Psalm 37. Turn to your bible, and read those comforting portions of Holy Scripture. “Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you. I have called you by name; you are mine. When you go through deep waters and great trouble, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown! When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior!” Isaiah 43:1-3.
Then how cheering to the believer is the prophet’s assurance, “These are the ones who will dwell on high. The rocks of the mountains will be their fortress of safety. Food will be supplied to them, and they will have water in abundance.” Isaiah 33:16. Can anything be more encouraging than the apostle’s application to the individual believer, of the promise made to Joshua? So that we may boldly say, we Christians, yes, every one of us individually—The Lord is my helper. Be content with such things as you have, then, for he has said—I will never leave you, nor forsake you.” The force of this passage in the original, exceeds the power of translation—it contains five negative particles within the compass of these few words, so that literally rendered it would be, “No, I will not leave you; no, no, I will not forsake you!” It is one of the most emphatic and beautiful examples of the force of a negative declaration, in all the scripture.
God seems to draw back with dread and abhorrence at the thought of forsaking his people. Trust him. Not that I mean to insinuate that you are authorized to expect miraculous supplies. Your garments will not be rendered undecaying, like those of the Israelites in the wilderness; nor your provisions inexhaustible, like those of the widow before us. But the God of providence can find you means and instruments of assistance, as effectual as if the laws of nature were suspended in your behalf! All hearts are in his hands! All events are at his disposal! All contingencies are in his knowledge and under his direction. What is wanting on your part is FAITH. Only believe, and perhaps you are really limited to faith—you can scarcely do anything else.
Not that I mean to discourage effort. On this subject I have dwelt in a former part of the volume. You must, in proper season and manner, exert yourself for your own support, and for that of your children. But what I mean is, that when after every effort, and fixed determination, and utmost energy, to provide for your necessities; you do not see through what channel, and to what object, your efforts are to be directed; you are to believe that God will, in ways unknown and unthought of by you, provide you his assistance. This is your faith. In ten thousand times, ten thousand instances—he has helped poor dependent widows as effectually without a miracle, as he did the woman of Zarephath by a miracle. The barrel of flour, and cruse of oil has been replenished as truly—though not as mysteriously—as in the case before us.
And why is this case recorded—but to encourage you to trust in God. It was a miracle it is true, and like other miracles had the high design of ‘confirming the revelation of God’ by his prophet. But it was a miracle of supply to one in destitution, intended visibly to typify and illustrate God’s ‘ordinary providence in supplying the needs of his people’, and to encourage through all ages, the exercise of godly confidence in him. Read it with this view of it; and when the last supply is exhausted, from time to time, read it again and again, to raise the hope of a future provisions from him, who hears the young ravens when they cry. You do not know when or how it will come—but believe that it will come!
O what a God-honoring grace is faith! And as faith honors Him—so he delights to honor faith! All things are possible, and all things are promised—to him that believes. As no miracle could be wrought, in the time when these wondrous miraculous operations were common, without faith; so now, in cases of providential interposition, no manifestation of God’s power and grace is to be looked for—except in answer to faith. I would not encourage wild enthusiasm—but I believe that God says to his dependent and destitute people, “Be it unto you according to your faith.” Do not, then, look only to see the barrel of flour gradually sinking lower and lower. But look up unto God, who can replenish it, and with much in the former to generate doubt and fear, feel also that there is as much in the latter, to encourage faith and hope.
But there is another lesson to be learned by the conduct of the widow of Sarepta, and that is, not to let your own grief and comparative destitution, steel your hearts against the needs of others, and close your hands to their necessities. She shared with Elijah the last meal she was preparing for herself and her son. Grief is apt to make us selfish, and limited circumstances to produce an indisposition to give to others in dire need. Take heed against such a state of mind as this. Do not exhaust all your tears upon yourself. There are many as destitute as you are, perhaps some far more so. You are prepared by your own experience of poverty, to sympathize with others in similar destitution—and will find in sympathy to them, a relief for your own sorrows. Nothing tends more to relieve that overwhelming sense of wretchedness, with which the heart of the sufferer is sometimes oppressed, than a generous pity for a fellow weeper!