Trust in God in Times of Need
Sunday School Lesson for May 4, 2003
Background Passage: 1 Kings 16:29-17:24
The Beginning of Elijah’s Ministry (17:1)
Following the rise of “Ahab” to the throne of the northern kingdom of Israel (16:29-34), we are quickly introduced to the prophet “Elijah.” Elijah, whose name means “Yahweh is my God,” was raised up by the Lord to confront the syncretistic practices of Ahab and his wife “Jezebel.” These two had contributed to the religious apostasy of the nation by leading the people into the worship of Baal. Ahab had even constructed a temple to Baal in Samaria while Jezebel was committed to “killing off the Lord’s prophets” (18:4). The worship of Baal, the Canaanite storm god who was thought to be responsible for sending the rains on the land, became an accepted practice among the Israelites during the twenty-two year tenure of Ahab.
In the midst of the reign of such an evil king—one who “did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him” (16:33)—Elijah was prompted by God to announce to Ahab that a dramatic act of divine judgment was soon to come upon the land. According to the Lord’s very Word—“as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives”— there would be “neither dew nor rain” in the land of Israel “in the next few years.”
As we will see, Elijah, the man known for his life of prayer (James 5:17-18), was committed to the task of ridding the nation of its idolatrous ways and calling Israel back to the worship of the one true God. Furthermore, he “makes it his mission to teach that Yahweh lives, that Baal does not exist, and that ethical standards flow from a commitment to the living God” [House, 212].
The Provision for the Prophet (17:2-6)
In light of the approaching drought, the Lord commanded Elijah to hide himself in “Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan” (v. 3). There the Lord would provide for his nourishment not only by means of the “brook,” but by ordering “the ravens” to feed him (v. 3). In obedience to the divine command, Elijah went and stayed at the ravine where the ravens “brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening” (v. 6). Interestingly, meat would have certainly been viewed as a luxury by the ancient Israelites. At any rate, the Lord richly provided for the needs of the prophet while he awaited further instructions.
The First Miracle at Zarepath (17:7-16)
Following an unspecified period of time, the brook eventual dried up as the promise of divine judgment was fulfilled (v. 7). Once again, the Lord sent His Word to Elijah ordering him to go to the city of “Zarepath of Sidon” (v. 9). Wiseman notes that this city, the exact location of which is unknown, “lay in Phoenician territory controlled by Ahab’s father-in-law. Elijah was visiting enemy territory and showing the power of God in an area where Baal was worshipped, though ineffective through drought” . It would be in this city, in the very heart of Baal country, that Yahweh would once more display His sovereign Lordship over nature as a testimony to the impotency of the idol-god.
The Lord told the prophet that, even though the drought was still in full force, He had “commanded a widow in that city” to provide him with food (v. 9). Upon his arrival at the city, Elijah identified this woman and inquired about water and bread (vv. 10-11). Startled by the request, the woman admitted that she possessed “a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug” (v. 12). The impact of the drought was so severe that she confessed her belief that she and her son would soon die (v. 12). At this critical moment Elijah comforted her—“Don’t be afraid”—and promised her that she would never run out of flour or oil “until the day when the Lord gives rain on the land” (v. 14). Note that the promise of the Lord’s provision was pronounced in connection with specific commands she was to obey—“But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have . . .” (v. 13).
After she had obediently acted on the word of the prophet and, as a consequence, the Word of Yahweh, the Lord supplied food for her and her family “every day” (v. 15). Incredibly, “the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry” just exactly as the Lord had promised (v. 16). Once again, therefore, we see that Yahweh is fully able to provide for what His people need while Baal is proven to be powerless [House, 215].
The Second Miracle at Zarepath (17:17-24)
Like before, an unspecified period of time passed and the woman’s son became very ill (v. 17). The undefined sickness continually grew worse until the lad finally died—he “stopped breathing” (v. 17). Believing, as many in Old Testament times did, that death and tragedy were the direct result of specific personal sins, the woman confronted the prophet with a forthright challenge—“What do you have against me man of God?” (v.18). In other words, the woman is concerned that “her sin has brought about her son’s death and wonders if Elijah has been sent to punish her” [House, 215].
In response to the woman’s dire situation and confusion about the cause of her son’s death, Elijah took the boy in his arms and placed him on the bed in the second floor sleeping quarters of the home (v. 19). Then, the man of God began to fervently pray to the Lord on behalf of the lifeless child and his grieving mother. Note the brevity, anguish, and direct nature of Elijah’s prayer—“. . . have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with by causing her son to die?” (v.20). In the midst of his prayer, as an act of prophetic faith and divinely initiated boldness, Elijah literally placed his body over the boy’s corpse—“he stretched himself out on the boy three times”—and continued his passionate intercession—“O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” (v.21).
In verse 22, we learn that Elijah’s prayer to Yahweh was heard. The Lord caused the “boy’s life” to return to him. Having been physically dead, the boy now “lived” again by the resurrection power of God. Simply stated, the lad was brought back from death “because Yahweh [heard] Elijah’s plea, not because of the prophet’s prowess” [House, 215]. Wiseman notes that this instance of resurrection is the “first example in the Bible of revival from death” and cannot be dismissed as an example of “the mouth-to-mouth method of resuscitation” .
The suddenly joyous scene continues with Elijah handing the boy over to his thoroughly amazed mother—“Look, your son is alive!” (v.23). With this, the woman stated that she now knew for certain that Elijah was a genuine “man of God,” and, more significantly, that “the word of the Lord from your [Elijah’s] mouth is the truth” (v. 24). Thus, for the second time, the woman was prompted to realize that “the same God who provided the oil has provided life for her son. Baal may be dead, but Yahweh is not, nor is her son” [House, 215]. In conclusion, Nelson observes the intriguing “double-movement” of this miracle narrative: “The boy moves from death to life, the woman moves from disbelieving hostility to a confession of faith” .
One: God’s faithfulness to care for and provide for His children—As the lesson title implies, a major focus of this passage is on the fatherly commitment God has made to provide for the needs of those who trust in Him. Can you think of other passages and/or Biblical promises that also reinforce this truth? Consider the fact that the widow aided by Elijah was outside the covenant nation. What does this say about the love of God and the scope of His saving purposes?
Two: The necessity of obedience—Throughout the lesson passage we have seen the importance of obedience, both in the life of the prophet himself and also in the story of the widow. Why are God’s promises so often connected to obedience on the part of the recipient? Is this a way of saying that God’s promises and blessings are somehow earned, or is there another answer? Hint: Think about tests of faith. Could it be that by means of this promise-command structure God seeks to strengthen (not question) the faith of those whom He loves? You also might want to reflect on the frequent times Jesus called for obedience in connection with the performance of a healing or other miracle.
Three: The power of God’s Word—As we have repeatedly noted, there is a major focus upon the power or ability of God’s Word to accomplish His purposes. That is, God works in and through His Word as the means to the achievement of His will. Yahweh’s Word is not static, but thoroughly dynamic. In what way(s) then, does this fact impact . . .
Four: The emptiness of idolatry—This passage prepares us for the prophetic showdown of Chapter 18 (next week’s lesson) between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. We have seen the reality, power, and compassion of the God of Israel as opposed to the non-existence of Baal dramatically illustrated in our lesson passage. Why is idolatry so easy to fall into? What is so compelling or magnetic about worshipping and serving other gods? Think specifically about the Covenant nation itself—Israel. Why did they so frequently slide toward religious apostasy, syncretism, immorality, and the outright abandonment of Yahweh? Is there a lesson for us here?
Five: Images of Jesus—How does this passage help to prepare us for the ministry of our Lord? That is, can you find any hints or shadows of Christ amidst the action in this story of God’s miraculous provision?