1 Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” 2 And the word of the Lord came to him: 3 “Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. 4 You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” 5 So he went and did according to the word of the Lord. He went and lived by the brook Cherith that is east of the Jordan. 6 And the ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook. 7 And after a while the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land.
8 Then the word of the Lord came to him, 9 “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.” 11 And as she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 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.” 13 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. 14 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.’” 15 And she went and did as Elijah said. And she and he and her household ate for many days. 16 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. – 1 Kings 17:1-16 ESV
Almost as if out of nowhere, a new character appears on the scene. His sudden and unexpected arrival seems intended to accentuate the divine nature of his mission. We’re given no background story and little in the way of biographical information, other than his name and the identity of his hometown.
His introduction into the narrative is timed to coincide with the rise to power of King Ahab and his Sidonian queen, Jezebel. With this new power couple ruling over the northern kingdom of Israel, the spiritual state of the ten northern tribes has reached an all-time low. The author ended chapter 16 with an unflattering description of their influence over the nation.
…he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 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. – 1 Kings 16:31-33 ESV
To say that Ahab had managed to anger God more than any of his predecessors is saying a lot. He was following in the footsteps of some world-class. all-star-quality apostates. But when it came to wickedness and unfaithfulness, Ahab set the new gold standard. He became the proverbial poster boy for all that is wicked and ungodly, while his wife managed to earn herself a permanent spot in the hall of infamy.
In the middle of their sin-fueled and self-absorbed reign, God decides to deliver a message to them, utilizing an obscure and unknown man named Elijah. This will not be the first time God has sent a prophet to deliver a message to a wayward and rebellious king. When Jeroboam had made the fateful decision to replace Yahweh with his own false gods, an unnamed prophet had appeared on the scene with a dire message for the king, and he demonstrated God’s anger by destroying one of the altars Jeroboam had dedicated to his false god. Later on, Jeroboam sent his wife to consult with another prophet of God, in hopes of getting a prognosis regarding his young son’s illness. But what he got was bad news. He was told that his son would die and that every one of his male heirs would die before they could inherit the throne. In other words, any hopes of establishing a dynasty would be destroyed.
As the seventh king to reign over the northern kingdom of Israel, Ahab would not be the first to receive a message from God. But, in his case, the prophet would play a more pronounced and prolonged role in his life. The sins of Ahab and his wife were so egregious that God made his prophet a permanent fixture in their kingdom.
Elijah’s very first encounter with the king and queen was far from favorable. He stood before this powerful couple and boldly proclaimed, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1 ESV). That took guts and a fair amount of faith. He was claiming to have the God-given authority to withhold rain from the kingdom of Israel. Any way you look at it, this had to come across as a less-than-veiled threat to Ahab and Jezebel. But before they had time to cut this arrogant upstart down to size, God gave him instructions to get out of town.
“Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan.” – 1 Kings 17:3 ES
Elijah had done his job, but now it was time for God to prepare him for the next phase of his assignment. Before sending his prophet back into the mouth of the lion’s den, God planned to equip him for what was to come. He was determined to make Elijah a faithful and obedient messenger, strong enough to handle all the vitriol and violence that was about to come his way. Standing up to Ahab and Jezebel was not going to be easy, so God graciously eased Elijah into his new role with a hands-on experience that would teach him to trust and obey.
While in God’s preparatory school for prophets, Elijah was miraculously fed and cared for. He received a twice-daily ration of bread and meat, delivered to his cave by ravens. And outside the cave was a ready source of clean, pure water. But in time, “the brook dried up, because there was no rain in the land” (1 Kings 17:7 ESV). In other words, Elijah’s prediction of drought had come true and he was suffering just like everyone else. And without rain, that meant there was no more bread or meat for the ravens to deliver. Elijah’s little oasis in the wilderness had become a death trap. So, God gave him new instructions.
“Go and live in the village of Zarephath, near the city of Sidon. I have instructed a widow there to feed you.” – 1 Kings 17:8 NLT
This would have been a long and arduous journey under normal conditions, but the presence of drought made it even more so. Interestingly, God sent Elijah to a city in the region of Sidon, the very kingdom over which Jezebel’s father was king. Elijah was being sent to the very place Ahab had acquired a queen and her false god, Baal. Zarephath lay in between Tyre and Sidon, two of the most prominent Phoenician cities. But as the story makes clear, the drought had made its way all the way to the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
God had provided Elijah with few details regarding what to do when he arrived in Zarephath. The prophet had no food and had received no word from God regarding when and how it would come – if it did at all. So, when Elijah encounters a widow gathering sticks, he decides to throw himself on her mercy. He asks for a drink of water and a morsel of bread. But then he finds out that this woman’s state was worse than his own.
“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.” – 1 Kings 17:12 NLT
The drought had left this woman with no food with which to feed herself or her young son. The drought had taken its toll. And it shouldn’t be overlooked that Baal, the god of the Phonecians, was considered a fertility god. He was the provider of bountiful blessings, whether in the form of crops or children. And yet, this woman was living in a drought and watching her young son starve to death. There was nothing bountiful taking place in Zarephath. Baal was nowhere to be found.
Then, God gave Elijah a message to deliver to the woman.
“Don’t be afraid! Go ahead and do just what you’ve said, but make a little bread for me first. Then use what’s left to prepare a meal for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again!” – 1 Kings 17:13-14 NLT
While the god of the Phoenicians had failed to provide, the God of Israel would meet her needs and preserve the lives of both her and her son. Even in a time of drought, God would miraculously provide flour and oil in abundance – until He decided to open up the skies and end the drought.
And the woman faithfully obeyed the word of the prophet and “There was always enough flour and olive oil left in the containers, just as the Lord had promised through Elijah” (1 Kings 17:16 NLT). God graciously provided for this Sidonian widow and her son, and He continued to meet the needs of His prophet. But more than anything, God was teaching Elijah that He could be trusted. He was greater than the god of the Phoenicians. He was more powerful than the god of Ahab and Jezebel. The brook may have dried up, but the resources of God remained unending and plentiful. The ravens may have stopped showing up, but the miracle-working power of God remained undiminished. There was no circumstance too great for God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson