Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Heroes
Chapter 3 – A Widow’s Last Flour 1 Kings 17:9-16
by Bob Burridge ©2014
There was once a woman
out gathering sticks to build a fire.
Her husband had died leaving her alone to take care of herself and to raise her son. She went to find fire-wood by the gate of the city of Tsar-pha-TAH (צָרְפַ֙תָה֙). In our English Bibles the city is called Zarephath. It was in the land of Sidon, a pagan country ruled by King Et-baal. His daughter was the notorious Jezebel who had married Ahab, King of Israel.
It was hard for widows in that culture because they weren’t able to earn their own living. They had to raise or gather what they could on their own, or be cared for by others.
This woman faced a specially hard situation.
God had sent a great famine at that time. It was a judgment that came because of the sins of King Ahab of Israel.
His marriage to the pagan woman Jezebel was a total rejection of God’s covenant. But even worse, Ahab promoted and took part in the worship of the pagan gods.
1 Kings 16:33, “And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him.”
An “Asherah” seems to have been some kind of crafted image of the Phoenician goddess by that name.
That’s why the God of Israel, sent the prophet Elijah to announce a judgment. He told King Ahab that for 3½ years there would be no rain or dew. This would bring devastating famine, sickness and death. Even the secular histories of that time tell about this great drought and the famine it produced.
Another thing this widow was troubled by was that she believed in Jehovah, the God of Israel. But she lived in Sidon, the center for Baal worship. This made her an unwanted outcast in a pagan nation.
So the widow went out to the city gate
to gather sticks for a cooking fire.
She had only a handful of flour left, and just a little oil. Her plan was to make a fire to bake a pastry of her last measure of oil and flour. She and her son would eat this last meal. Since there was nothing else, they would probably die. Here was a woman, who didn’t have much, but she was industrious and busy to the end. Instead of sitting around brooding over her problem, she responsibly did what she could.
She thought she was only there to gather sticks. But she was part of the history of God’s Kingdom we read about thousands of years later.
While she collected wood for her last fire
a man came along.
It was the prophet Elijah. He was that rugged Tishbite from the mountains of Gilead, called by God for this special mission. He was the one who delivered the message about the famine, and God promised to provide for him until it rained again and the crops were restored.
First he was sent to a brook at Cherith. For about a year, God provided for Elijah supernaturally. Ravens brought food twice a day, and the little brook provided water, even during the drought. But then the brook dried up. It was God’s time for him to move on. The change came suddenly. It ended his secure daily routine.
The next phase of the plan became clear as God explained to the prophet,
1 Kings 17:9, “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.”
He knew that it would be foolish not to trust God’s word. So Elijah obeyed.
1 Kings 17:10a, “So he arose and went to Zarephath. …”
Elijah did exactly as God directed him. He left the refuge of Cherith, and traveled the long way from the Jordan valley. He went to Zarephath in the pagan land of Sidon, the land of wicked Queen Jezebel, the very hub of Baal worship.
Immediately at the gate he met that widow — just as God said.
10b, “… And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. …”
This was hardly what natural reason would expect with much confidence. How could this widow with no means of provision care for God’s prophet?
But Elijah knew this wasn’t just an accidental encounter, and he trusted the promise of God. He was told that the widow of Zarephath would provide for him. It was God’s word. God always does what he says.
So he approached her as verse 10 continues …
1 Kings 17:10c-11, “… And he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.’ And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, ‘Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.’ ”
Asking her for a drink was a simple courtesy commonly expected of travelers. So the woman immediately started off to get the water. Though water was very hard to come by during the drought, she didn’t question the stranger. She knew her duty before God was to do what she could to help, so she obeyed.
Before she got very far, he asked her for some bread too. This was also something commonly asked by travelers, but in more normal times. These weren’t normal times. There was a great famine.
It was stranger still that he would ask something like that of a widow. People knew they weren’t likely to have much for themselves, much less to have bread to spare even in times when food was plentiful. However, this was not just a normal encounter. God had made a specific promise to Elijah. When God gives his word about something, anything, it would take a fool to doubt him.
The woman didn’t know what God promised to Elijah. She wasn’t sure she was able to help.
1 Kings 17:12, “And she said, ‘As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.’ “
The word “LORD” in verse 12 is the special covenant name of God YaHVeH (יהוה), Jehovah. It shows that she was not a Baal follower, but a woman who respected the God of Israel. God had prepared this believing widow to be the one Elijah would meet in the midst of a heathen land.
Her answer didn’t sound very encouraging. Based on what she knew, the woman saw no way she could provide for the stranger. She was not just being pessimistic when she said they expected to die after the meal. People were dying in the nations all around her. Why would she be any different? She knew she just had enough flour and oil for one last small meal for herself and her son.
Elijah knew that if God could provide for a year by ravens and a brook at Cherith, certainly he could provide through this widow.
The woman had no special promises from God about her provisions, not yet. But the promise was on its way — just moments off!
Next came an explanation from God’s prophet.
1 Kings 17:13-14, “And Elijah said to her, ‘Do not fear; go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, “The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth.” ‘ “
The prophet was not being selfish by asking for her to make her last bread cake and feed him first. God told Elijah that a widow there would provide for him. If the woman did this hard thing, it would confirm that she was the one God had chosen. But she wasn’t sent off blindly to do something without knowing God’s promise first. Elijah explained that there was no reason to be afraid to obey him. Until the drought ends, the meal and oil would not run out.
When Jehovah, God of Israel, makes his promise, he never fails or goes back on his word. 1 Samuel 15:29 says that God “… will not lie nor relent…”
He cannot break his oath. That would make God contradict his own nature. In the book of Hebrews it says,
Hebrews 6:17-19, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain”
A.W. Pink put it this way, “Faith is not occupied with difficulties, but with Him with whom all things are possible. Faith is not occupied with circumstances, but with the God of circumstances.”
The woman proved that she trusted in the True God
by acting on his word.
1 Kings 17:15a, “And she went and did as Elijah said. …”
God said he would sustain his prophet at Zarephath through a widow there. The prophet obeyed and so did that simple widow who became one of those heroes of God’s Kingdom.
They left God’s part for him to take care of. Each knew that his own part was to obediently demonstrate a living faith.
James 2:17 tells us that a faith without works is a dead faith. Faith without obedience is just blind trust or mystical hope. A disobedient faith is not one implanted by the Holy Spirit that rests with assurance in God’s word. A faith that doesn’t act upon what it professes, is just a foolish and empty claim.
God did exactly what he promised his prophet and this widow. He must always keep his word.
1 Kings 17:15b-16, “… And she and he and her household ate for many days. The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.”
The supply was sufficient every day. The flour and oil never ran out. One of God’s names in Scripture is YaHVeH YiReH (יְהוָ֣ה יִרְאֶ֑ה), “the Lord provides” (Genesis 22:14).
As believers, we need to continue
trusting in God’s promises too.
Like this widow, we might not always understand how his word can be kept. But we trust that all he promises will be kept.
The third verse of the hymn By Grace I am an Heir of Heaven ends with the words, “What reason cannot comprehend, God doth to thee by grace extend.”
This kind of faith is not the kind the world imagines. It’s not a blind trust in irrational things. It’s a confidence that the promise of God is the most rational thing of all. When a person is trusting in God’s provision for his soul in Christ, he discovers the obvious reality of God’s power and promises.
The kind of reasoning that starts by assuming God can’t help, ends up in despair. It frets and worries about things beyond our own control. It ends up inventing all sorts of false religions, superstitions, and misleading science to cover the hopelessness.
The true and living faith, the kind that comes from Christ in the heart, is active. Instead of complaining or giving up in times of challenge, it looks for what to do. It moves ahead with action based upon God’s promise.
When God promises something, no matter how hard it is for us to image him doing it, what we see as improbable, or even impossible, becomes inevitable.
Its just plain irrational to think that God can’t or won’t accomplish all he promises! We have the word of the absolutely truthful and infinitely powerful God.
Several years ago I challenged my congregation
to keep a “promise list”.
As you read your Bibles, or hear God’s word explained in a sermon or lesson, have a place to write down God’s promises. Not the special promises he made to individuals like Noah, or Elijah, but the general promises God makes as principles for his children living in his world.
For example: The promise Jesus made in John 11:25-26 to Martha was about all believers. He said, “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. …”
All who confess their complete need for a Savior from their guilt before God, and who trust that Jesus Christ paid their debt in full on the cross, are assured of forgiveness, of the power to grow in personal godliness, and of having eternal life.
How can sinners be welcomed into God’s heaven forever? God provided the way, and his work and promise can’t possibly fail. Your responsibility is to trust him, and show that you trust him by obeying.
God’s promises can’t fail when you really trust him enough to do what he says. That’s what Elijah did. It’s what this poor widow in Zarephath did. It’s what we each need to do too.
– Trust him that obeying his moral principles is really the most satisfying way to live.
– Trust his word that promises blessings to your children if you ground them in God’s truth and ways.
– Trust him that keeping the Sabbath biblically, is better for you than stealing God’s time.
– Trust him that faithful giving to your church makes better economic sense than spending God’s money for yourself.
– Trust him that marriage is the only right place for sexual intimacy.
– Trust him that it’s good to help others to trust in Jesus Christ, and to unite with his church.
– Trust him that doing all things the way he says is right, is better for you, for your loved ones, and for your country, than following popular trends, the latest fads, and human theories.
Elijah obeyed God, went to his enemies land, and trusted a widow with no food or money. The widow believed God’s prophet. She gave what little she had, and proved her trust. Both understood that God is to be trusted, even when his ways were unexpected.
This simple widow is a good example for all of us. Those who didn’t understand the power and promises of God might have laughed at her. They would have felt sorry that she was so gullible.
But Elijah wasn’t just a typical con-man using religion to get things for himself. He was God’s prophet who told what God had said. God’s Spirit at work in the widow assured her that obeying God was the only right way.
This is how we need to live too. Sometimes the challenges of this world can seem like impossible barriers. The lures of compromise and temptation are designed by God’s enemy to seem appealing. Pressure from others pull us toward ways that are not right and are not good for us.
We need to be heroes of God’s Kingdom and stand firmly upon God’s ways. If God says he will promise things that seem like they won’t work, it’s our seeming that needs fixing, not God’s promises.
There are no prophets today who get special revelation directly from God as Elijah did, but we have God’s prophetic word in our Bibles. We dare not let go of his promises just because we don’t understand how they can help. We ought to trust them all the way to full obedience to them. Nothing should tempt us to lay them aside even for a moment. The idea that disobeying God can help in certain situations, even for a moment, is a lie and deception from hell.
Just as Elijah obeyed, and the widow obeyed when God’s ways seemed unworkable, we too will find out that the impossible and improbable become inevitable when we steadfastly rest in and act upon God’s revealed word.
Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.