Summary: The prophet Elijah was God’s instrument to test this Gentile widow’s trust. It’s easier to be reminded of God’s promises than to act on them.
As someone who has moved 27 times in my life, I know that God decides how long we remain in place. I received orders from the Pentagon, but I regarded them as from God. Elijah was directly told when to move. We, on the other hand, do not have supernatural guidance, or access to God’s timetable, so we make our decisions based on the wisdom we’ve been given, then we rest in God’s will. “God’s plan for us cannot be discovered beforehand and it cannot be missed…Where there is no command, God gives us wisdom to choose” (Friesen). We sometimes trust open and closed doors--yet just because a door is open, that doesn’t mean we should enter; and just because a door is shut doesn’t mean we stop knocking. It’s not always easy to know what’s best. In Elijah’s case, it was a matter of waiting till God directed otherwise. Elijah was ready for anything.
In verse 7, the drought over the land causes the brook at Cherith to dry up, which was part of the divine plan. Just as God caused the drought, He could have kept the brook flowing with water. The dried-up brook was a signal to move on. Elijah was by himself for a year, yet prophets are not hermits; they don’t function in isolation, apart from society. Elijah’s solitude was temporary. God touches people’s lives by sending His servants to places of need. He wanted Elijah to do what prophets do--namely to confront evil and bolster the faith of the hopeless. God alone sustains us. God wants to teach us to trust in Him, and not in His gifts. The brook dries up, but not Elijah’s faith.
Verses 8-9 show that God cares about individuals; as Elijah is specifically sent to the home of an unnamed, starving widow. Zarephath was in Sidon, the Gentile center of Baal-worship, a 75 mile journey from Cherith. God will defeat Baal in his homeland. There’s no home-field advantage for him; the drought affected Sidon as well. The widow, while living in a pagan land, appears to be a believer; she responds in the Name of the God of Elijah, although she refers to Him as “your” God.
Why wasn’t Elijah sent to a widow in Israel? There were plenty of widows, but God is bypassing Israel as an act of judgment upon the land. This is what happens when a nation becomes apathetic toward God. What is the center of your life? If not God, the center is something lesser that has captured your attention. God deserves supremacy in our lives; He is worthy to be given preeminence; He deserves nothing less than total commitment. There are many “fans” of Jesus, but few disciples. I mentioned last time that Elijah’s name means “Jehovah is my God.” Can that be said of us, or are we merely fans? Elijah had a significant name in a time when most people had left the faith. And Zarephath means “refining” which is how God used it for Elijah. His time there was a refining experience, preparing him to battle evil. So why wasn’t Elijah sent to the home of a wealthy merchant? Some of us can only reach maturity through trying circumstance. God often does the opposite of what we expect.
When God sends us, He has people prepared to receive us. Elijah had both the humility and audacity to ask this widow’s assistance, even though he wasn’t asking for much. The widow laments that she has reached the end of her resources and is preparing her last meal, for her and her son. There was no food pantry in Zarephath. There was nothing left, but death. And so she is resigned to her fate. Yet Elijah knows from recent experience with ravens God’s ability to provide. The prophet directs her to prepare some bread, and she stakes everything on his word. In so doing, she discovers a nonstop supply of flour and oil! It’s as if God was saying, “Give me everything you have and I will give you everything you need.”
Elijah was not being selfish or unreasonable; he was God’s instrument to test this Gentile widow’s trust. It’s easier to be reminded of God’s promises than to act on them. She was reduced to utter faith in the God who promises to provide our needs. We likely know more about God than she did, yet faith is all about trusting the word of God. We may know the Bible cover-to-cover, but do we act on it? This woman’s courageous faith is remembered, and centuries thereafter, Jesus reminded His hometown of Nazareth about this faith that they lacked. The people He grew up with rejected Him, and so He declared in Luke 4…
“I tell you there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.” Elijah’s visit to Zarephath was a reproach to Israel for their lack of faith. Jesus also noted, “The one who receives a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward” (Mt 10:41).