The Widow of Zarephath didn’t know the Lord. She wasn’t Jewish. She wasn’t even from Israel. But God chose her to be the source of a miracle for Elijah–and because our God seeks after hearts, he chose Elijah to be the source of a miracle for her.
Here are three things to know about the Widow of Zarephath:
She was from Jezebel’s home.
After Elijah prophesied to King Ahab that there would be no rain in the land until the Lord ordained it, God sent Elijah to find shelter at the brook of Cherith. When the brook dried up, God told Elijah to go to Zarephath in the region of Sidon. The Lord had prepared a widow to provide food for Elijah. This must have been a test of Elijah’s faith. Sidon was Jezebel’s home territory (1 Kings 16:31). At a time when it was not safe for the prophet to publicly show his face in Israel, God hid Elijah in the heart of enemy territory. And God didn’t send Elijah to a wealthy merchant or landowner: God sent Elijah to a widow.
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In biblical times, widows held a precarious position in society. Unless they remarried or had family who could care for them, widows were often destined for poverty and destitution. God sent Elijah to one of the least hospitable places he could go and to a person who was one of the least likely to be able to care for him. Why? Even in the Old Testament, God’s heart was for the redemption of all nations. By sending Elijah to Sidon, God demonstrated his sovereignty. God was powerful enough to protect his prophet right in the center of Jezebel’s–and Baal’s–home turf. In his sovereignty God also knew this Sidonian widow was ready to know the One True God. And so the same God sent his prophet to her. Elijah was seeking sustenance. God was seeking her.
She responded in faith to what she knew of God.
It wasn’t the most encouraging meeting. Elijah arrived at the gate of Zarephath and found a widow gathering sticks. He asked her to bring him a little water and a piece of bread. She told him–and I always picture her saying this with a “have you lost your mind” tone–that all she had left was a little flour and a little oil, and she was going home to make some bread for herself and her son so they could eat it and die. In other words: “Hey mister, there’s a famine. Perhaps you noticed?” But Elijah told her not to be afraid. He urged her to go home and make some bread, but to first bring him a piece. God had promised that neither the flour nor the oil would run out until God sent rain on the land.
And so the widow did as Elijah had said. We don’t know what was in her mind. Perhaps she reasoned that she might as well indulge the crazy man–a single piece of bread wouldn’t sustain her and her son for long anyway. But she did it. Again, she lived in Sidon. She would have been more familiar with Baal’s cruelty than God’s kindness. Though she recognized Elijah as a man of God, she was clear that the Lord was Elijah’s God–not hers. But whatever she knew of God, it was enough. She responded in faith to what she knew of God, and God kept his promise. Elijah stayed with her, and Elijah, the widow, and her household ate for many days without the oil running dry or the flour running out.
Tragedy tested her fledgling faith.
Then tragedy struck. The widow’s son grew ill and died. She lashed out at Elijah. “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”(2 Kings 17:18). In her grief the widow blamed both Elijah and God. Again, Elijah had been in her house “many days.” Surely over that time Elijah talked with the woman about the Lord. Perhaps he told her the stories of Abraham and Moses, the flood and the crossing of the Red Sea. And day after day there was that miraculous provision of the bread and the oil. Baal brought death, but God’s continued care showed her that God brought life. But that fledgling faith all came crashing down with the death of her son. She believed God had taken her son as punishment for her own sin. Who was there to blame but God and the prophet who had brought her to God’s attention?
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Elijah knew God was not capricious and cruel. And so Elijah did the only thing he knew to do: he cried out to God and asked God to bring life back to her son. It was an audacious prayer because at this point in Scripture no one had been raised from the dead before. Noah, Moses, Abraham–none of them had dared to pray this kind of prayer. But Elijah cried out to God, clinging to faith that God had not brought him to the widow for her destruction. Once–twice–three times Elijah prayed. God answered. The boy returned to life, and Elijah brought the child to his mother. The widow declared her faith “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth” (1 Kings 17:24). Tragedy tested her fledgling faith, but God proved himself faithful.
What can we learn from the Widow of Zarephath?
The Widow of Zarephath reminds me that God is always seeking hearts. Elijah went to the widow’s house looking to save his life, but God’s goal was to save hers. God seeks hearts even in the most unlikely places, and we get to be part of that search. Who is God searching for in your life? Be alert to ways you can help nurture newborn faith, and look for ways to encourage people to cling to the truth of who God really is.
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