The Battle for Belief

17 After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill. And his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18 And she said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!” 19 And he said to her, “Give me your son.” And he took him from her arms and carried him up into the upper chamber where he lodged, and laid him on his own bed. 20 And he cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?” 21 Then he stretched himself upon the child three times and cried to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” 22 And the Lord listened to the voice of Elijah. And the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23 And Elijah took the child and brought him down from the upper chamber into the house and delivered him to his mother. And Elijah said, “See, your son lives.” 24 And 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.” 1 Kings 17:17-24 ESV

God had used Elijah to deliver His message of judgment against King Ahab and his foreign queen, Jezebel. In marrying this princess from Sidon, Ahab had also adopted her false god, Baal, and built a temple for its worship. He had also erected a shrine to honor Asherah, the moon-goddess and supposed mother of this pagan deity. And God, angered by these blatant acts of rebellion and apostasy, had sent Elijah to tell the royal couple that their kingdom would suffer under a great drought. Their disrespect and disregard for God had brought His discipline.

But after Elijah had successfully delivered his message, God sent him away. He had ended up at a cave, where God had graciously and miraculously arranged for ravens to deliver all the food he needed to survive. But eventually, Elijah became a victim of the very drought he predicted. Soon, the brook dried up and the daily deliveries of bread and meat no longer appeared. So, God had sent Elijah to the Sidonian town of Zarephath, where he took up residence with a poor widow and her son. She too was suffering from the effects of the drought. But, once again, Yahweh proved Himself to be the one true God by causing her meager supply of flour and oil to miraculously multiply and never run out. In the midst of a drought and severe famine, she had more than enough to sustain herself, her son, and God’s prophet. And through it all, Elijah was learning to trust God for all His needs. But even more importantly, Elijah was discovering that his God was greater than the god of Ahab and Jezebel. While Baal, the so-called fertility god, was powerless to stop the drought or reverse the effects of the famine, Yahweh had turned “a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug” (1 Kings 17:12 ESV) into a never-ending food supply for Elijah and his gracious hostess.

Then suddenly, the story takes a dramatic turn for the worse. The woman’s young son dies unexpectedly. And, faced with this devastating change in her circumstances, the woman vented all her anger and frustration on the prophet of God.

“O man of God, what have you done to me? Have you come here to point out my sins and kill my son?” – 1 Kings 17:18 NLT

It seems that the woman had falsely assumed that her son’s death was a form of divine retribution for a former sin she had committed. Perhaps by this time, Elijah had shared the details of his encounter with Ahab and Jezebel, explaining that he had been the one to predict the drought as a punishment for their sin. So, when her son suddenly died, she would have naturally reasoned that God was using the prophet to deliver yet another judgment for sin – her own.

But ignoring her despair-driven accusation, Elijah took the lifeless body of her son and placed it on his own bed. Then Elijah turned his attention to God. But notice the tone of His prayer. He seems to echo the words of the widow, passing the blame up the food chain and questioning the goodness and graciousness of God.

“O Lord my God, why have you brought tragedy to this widow who has opened her home to me, causing her son to die?” – 1 Kings 17:20 NLT

Elijah’s response reveals his firm belief that God is sovereign over all things. But he is perplexed and confused by the seeming injustice of it all. And, in his frustration, He accuses God of doing something wicked. The Hebrew word is rāʿaʿ, which is most often translated as “evil.” The boy’s death makes no sense to Elijah. It seems unnecessary and completely unproductive. When Elijah had first met the woman, she had been fully expecting her son to die of starvation because of the drought. But God had intervened and provided more than enough food to keep all three of them alive. So, to Elijah, the boy’s death seemed pointless and, if anything, it appeared to be an act of cruelty.

But while Elijah was having a difficult time understanding the ways of God, he remained convinced of the power of God. Three times, he lay across the dead body of the boy and cried out, “O Lord my God, please let this child’s life return to him” (1 Kings 17:21 NLT). And the fact that Elijah repeated this process three separate times demonstrates both his persistence and dependence upon God.

It’s important to consider that Elijah had no precedence on which to base his prayer. He was asking Yahweh to do the impossible – to raise a dead body back to life. And there is no indication that Elijah had ever seen or heard of God doing such a thing. Elijah was not basing his request on some past miracle, recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, contains no instance of God raising the dead back to life. So, Elijah was asking God to something that had never been done before. His request was a tremendous act of faith.

And in a classic example of understatement, the author simply records, “The Lord heard Elijah’s prayer, and the life of the child returned, and he revived!” (1 Kings 17:22 NLT). One can only imagine Elijah’s shock and surprise that Elijah as the lifeless body of the boy was suddenly reanimated. Two times, nothing had happened. But on the third try, God had suddenly chosen to intervene and answer Elijah’s prayer. We’re not told why God didn’t answer Elijah’s prayer the first time. Perhaps it was a test of Elijah’s faith, to see if he would continue to ask and believe even when his request went unanswered. But God had heard and He ultimately answered – in a remarkable way. And you can sense Elijah’s unbridled excitement and enthusiasm as he announced the news to the boy’s grieving mother.

“See, your son lives.” – 1 Kings 17:23 ESV

It would be easy to misread this statement and assume that Elijah is saying something like, “See, I told you so!” It almost appears as if he is chastising the woman for her lack of faith. But at no point in the story did Elijah tell the woman that her son would live. He had no way of knowing that God was going to answer his prayer or not. And, at least two times, God had failed to do so. But when God had finally provided the miracle for which Elijah was asking, the prophet couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. The New Living Translation provides a much more accurate rendering of Elijah’s response.

“Look!” he said. “Your son is alive!” – 1 Kings 17:23 NLT

No one was as shocked as Elijah, and his joy overflowed in a display of emotional celebration. He most likely walked into the room, carrying the boy in his arms, and then handed him over to the smothering embrace of his overjoyed mother. And, through tears mixed with laughter, the woman managed to express her gratitude to the prophet by declaring her belief in his God.

“Now I know for sure that you are a man of God, and that the Lord truly speaks through you.” – 1 Kings 17:24 NLT

While Yahweh had been keeping her and her son alive, she must have had her doubts about Elijah and his God. But now, as she clutched her son in her arms, she finally recognized and confessed the sovereignty of God and the authority of His prophet. Her son had been dead but was now alive. Her greatest loss had been restored to her. Her sorrow had been turned to joy.

And don’t miss the fact that this miracle took place in an obscure village in the region of Sidon. While Jezebel had brought her false god to the land of Israel, Elijah had brought the God of Israel to the land of Sidon. The arrival of Baal had been accompanied by drought and famine. But when Yahweh made His appearance in the pagan land of the Sidonians, He had turned a widow’s poverty into plenty and had replaced death with life. And, in doing so, He had proved Himself to be the one and only God of the universe.

And God intended this powerful lesson to prepare His prophet for all that was about to come. Elijah didn’t know it yet, but the greatest test of his faith was in his future. After three years of a debilitating and devastating famine, God was going to send Elijah back to the land of Israel to go face-to-face with the king and queen and toe-to-toe with their false 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