The Lord's Day
July 2, 2006
I Kings 17:17-24
“Finding God in Hard Places (2): A Grieving Widow”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me to I Kings, chapter 17. Last week we began a series, just two sermons while Ligon's on vacation...a series that I call generally, “Finding God in Hard Places.” And last week we were looking at Hezekiah–Hezekiah's sickness. It was a sickness unto death, as described in Chronicles and repeated again in Kings, and also in Isaiah 38-39.
This week I want us to look at the story of the widow of Zarephath in the stories that we are finding in I Kings on Elijah, and it falls in I Kings 17, from verse 17 to the end of the chapter. Before we read the passage, let's look to God again in prayer.
Father, we thank You for the Scriptures, the word of God. We thank You that we have a Bible that we can hold in our hands and study. We pray that You would give us a love for the Scriptures, and that we might treasure up Your word within our hearts as the very word of God. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Hear God's word:
“Now it came about after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became sick; and his sickness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. So she said to Elijah, ‘What do I have to do with you, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my iniquity to remembrance, and to put my son to death!’ He said to her, ‘Give me your son.’ Then he took him from her bosom and carried him up to the upper room where he was living, and laid him on his own bed. He called to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord my God, have You also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?’ Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and called to the Lord, and said, ‘O Lord my God, I pray You, let this child's life return to him.’ The Lord heard the voice of Elijah, and the life of the child returned to him and he revived. Elijah took the child, and brought him down from the upper room into the house and gave him to his mother; and Elijah said, ‘See, your son is alive.’ Then 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.’”
Amen. May God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
“Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
“Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.”
This is a story about trouble: a trial that comes into the life of a Gentile widow and her son. The story takes place in Zarephath, which is way up north on the coast, somewhere between Tyre and Sidon–Phoenician country. This is “Baalsville.” This is where Baal reigns supreme–the god Baal. Baal was the god of rain, and there's a drought. Baal was also the god of lightning, and you remember in the next chapter Elijah calling on the prophets of Baal to ignite the sacrifice, and he can't even so much as provide a spark.
Elijah, in the previous story to the one that we read — you remember, he's staying in this home of this widow and her son, and he has asked her for food, to bake him a cake — and all that she has in all the world is enough flour and oil to make one meal. That's all she has. And you remember what happens is a miracle of multiplication, because so long as Elijah is there, the flour doesn't run out and the jar of oil doesn't run out.
And now all of a sudden, trouble comes. This little boy of hers (and one gets the impression at least that this boy is a young, young child — he's taken from his mother's breast), this little boy dies.
Here's a woman who's known grief. She has lost her husband. All of the dreams that she has had as a young girl of marriage have been shattered. Her hopes, her aspirations, her longings have perhaps come to nothing; and now her son is dead. And in the midst of this terrible predicament, this hard, hard place, God comes and ministers and comforts, and gives grace.
And I want us to look at this very simple little story, and I want us to do so along three lines of thought.
I. The Problem of God's Ways.
In the first place we see what I want to call The Problem of God's Ways...The problem of God's ways, because His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are not our thoughts.
“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.”
Elijah is perhaps the greatest prophet of the Old Testament, apart possibly from Abraham, who was also called a prophet. Elijah comes at that moment in the history of redemption when God comes as He came in the time of Moses, and it's the beginning of the onset of an enormous amount of revelation from God; and accompanied with that revelation are signs, and wonders, and miracles.
Elijah is the prophet that the Jews kept an empty seat for at Passover. At the very end of the Bible, you remember, in the prophecy of Malachi “...until Elijah comes” — a prophecy with regard to John the Baptist. Elijah comes to this home, and you might have thought, you might have expected that the coming of the greatest prophet of the Old Testament would bring with it in its wake enormous blessing, but instead, it's pain and sorrow and calamity and distress. And the little boy in whose home Elijah is staying is dead. What do you think Elijah was thinking?
You see, he may have been saying to himself “All things work together for good to them that love God,” but don't you think he might have been thinking to himself, “Lord, why have You done this? This small, petty, mean thing?” He may not have uttered those words, but don't you think that perhaps he might have thought it? He might have said, ‘If only I had been in control of this situation...if only my finger had been on the trigger, I'd have done things differently. What possible function, what possible purpose, what possible point is there in the death of this little child?’
This lady resorts to the only theology that she knows: that suffering is always punishment.
‘Have you come into my house in order to bring my sins to the surface, and bring down the judgment of God?’
That's what she said. It's a perfectly understandable question on her part, you see. Don't we find ourselves saying something similar when we find ourselves in trouble? “What have I done to deserve this?” we say.
It was the question the disciples asked Jesus about the boy that was born blind, in John 9. “Who sinned?” they said. ‘Was it him, or was it his parents, because one way or another, however you compute it, it all comes down to the same thing in the end: suffering is always punishment on the part of God.’ And I think that perhaps Elijah might have been saying (to himself, that is), “Lord, do You really know what You’re doing?”
None of you have ever thought that, I'm sure! But I want to introduce you to a doctrine, and you don't find it in books on systematic theology, but I want to call it The Perplexity of God: that He does things, brings things to pass, intervenes in the course of our lives in a way that completely and utterly bamboozles us and takes our breath away. And we can't understand it. It's just like the disciples in the storm on the Sea of Galilee. They were in that boat because Jesus had told them to get into that boat. They were walking (or, in this case riding in a boat) in the way of obedience, and still they find themselves in a storm. The problem of God's ways...I wonder how many there are here today who are just there, right there! Things have happened, things have occurred in your home, in your life, in your marriage, in your family, in your business, in the circle of friends that you move in, and it just doesn't make any sense. And you’re asking “Why?” The Perplexity of God's Ways.
II. The Humility of God's
Secondly, The Humility of God's Servant. You see it in verses 19-21. What does Elijah do? Well, he does something extraordinary that I really don't understand, but there must be something contextual about it in the Old Testament that just evades me. But he takes the little boy to his room–maybe because he's dead, and that would have been the custom–and he lies on top of this child three times. I have no idea what all that's about, but there it is. It's not that that I want to draw attention to.
What does he do? What, exactly, does he do? He prays. Now what else does he do? He prays again. Two prayers. Do you notice in verse 20 — look at the wording of verse 20:
“He called to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord my God, have You also brought calamity to the widow with whom I am staying, by causing her son to die?’”
The language that Elijah uses in that prayer is exactly the language that the widow of Zarephath had used when she had brought her concern to Elijah in the first place. It's as though Elijah is taking the very frustration and the very anger, perhaps, and the very confusion of this woman, and he's taking the very words and bringing them before God. It's as though what Elijah is doing is saying to us that the very hurt, the pain that she feels, is being brought and expressed word by word in the very presence of God. Isn't that a beautiful thing? Isn't that an extraordinary thing? It's as though Elijah is saying, ‘Lord, listen! Listen to what this woman is saying!’ That's all he did. That's all he did. Why do we think of prayer as the last thing that we should do, as though prayer were something peripheral, as though prayer were something secondary? It's the first thing that he does. It's the most significant thing that he does.
You see, there's power in prayer.
“Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
Take it to the Lord in prayer.”
We have a God who in covenant hears and answers prayer. It's the most beautiful thing, in verse 22: “The Lord heard the voice of Elijah.” Now actually, there's more to it than just that God heard him. It seems to be saying that God heard the voice, the tone, the way in which Elijah expressed his concern...the pleading...the very pleading of his voice, the very tone of his voice. And God heard that, and it moved Him to compassion and tender pity, because that's the kind of God we have, who is moved by the prayers of His people. Think of it! God is sovereign. God is the Creator and maker and sustainer of all things, and amidst all of the millions of prayers that are ascending to His throne and to His ears, He heard this one. He heard the voice of Elijah praying on behalf of this woman and her son. That's all Elijah did. He didn't perform a miracle himself; he didn't utter some hocus-pocus or abracadabra; he just prayed. He bowed before the sovereign God and asked Him to intervene.
III. The Revelation to God's
And a third thing: not only The Problem of God's Ways and The Humility of God's Servant, but in the third place, The Revelation to God's People, because we're given a glimpse here as to why God did this.
What is it that this woman says after the little boy is revived and she's handed the little boy as Elijah brings him downstairs again? She says to Elijah:
“Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”
It's trustworthy. The word of God is faithful...that you can lean with all your might on the veracity and trustworthiness of the word of God.
This Gentile woman has come to faith. Yes, that's the heart of the story: she's come to understand that there is only one God, and it's not Baal; it's the God of Israel: it's the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and the God of Elijah, whose word is Yea and Amen in Jesus Christ.
When you get to the end of your trial, you’ll see that the God who perplexes you is faithful. You see, the problem is that sometimes we just don't have all the information.
Now, can I, on this day especially, refer to a battle between the British and the French? I know the French came to your aid in that minor skirmish in the eighteenth century, but this is another one entirely, between the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte, in June of 1815! It was a sea battle, you understand, and in those days in the English Channel, as indeed to this very day, the English Channel is often given to fog, and the way of communication was the use of semifore–flags. And in the height of the battle, when it was apparently foggy, someone on the south coast of England spied the semaphore signal, and it said “Wellington defeated.” And the news spread throughout England, and gloom and despair descended. And in the afternoon when the sun had risen to its height, the fog dissipated and lifted, and then they saw the full message: “Wellington defeated the enemy,” and there was great rejoicing. That's a very simple story (happens to be a true one), but we sometimes only have a little part of the information, and not the full information.
Last week I told you five things to do to fight the sin of pride, and today I want to give you five things to do to fight the sin of unbelief.
First of all, remember that God loves you. If you’re a Christian this morning, if you have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ this morning, God loves you more than you will ever love yourself. He's forgiven your sins. He's adopted you into His household and family. He's made you an heir, and a joint heir with Jesus Christ, and promised you glory. He loves you more than you will ever love yourself.
Secondly, that God's love is such that He gives His only begotten Son. He gives the Son of His love to die for us, to shed His blood for us, to become our substitute, to bear the wrath that our sins deserve. That's how much He loves you.
And, thirdly, meditate on the Scripture that says “He that spared not His own Son, but freely delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not, along with Him, freely given us all things?” All things! All things that will bring us to glory, all things that are necessary to bring us to glory; not all things that we necessarily want or desire, but all things that will bring us into the very presence of God, which is far better.
Bear in mind, in the fourth place, that what you may think is best for you, or what you may think is best for those whom you love, is not necessarily what is best for you or for those whom you love; because it just may be better for God to take that person to Himself, for reasons that you will never understand, not in a million years.
And so, fifthly, learn to pray. “I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therein to be content”; to trust God, to trust His ways that I cannot understand or fathom; to lean upon the everlasting arms, knowing that He does all things well.
Father, we thank You for Your word, and we ask now that You would hide it in our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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