So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, indeed a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, "Please bring me a little water in a cup, that I may drink" (1 Kings 17:10).y God's providence, just as Elijah arrived at Zarephath, this poor woman was going out to perform the sad task of collecting sticks for fuel to make what she was convinced would be her last meal. The same providence that led Elijah to Zarephath moved the widow to be out gathering sticks for her last meal. So she was the first person he saw. God's sovereignty is written all over this passage.
Notice also that even though this woman was in a hopeless situation, her despair had not yet caused her to lie down and give up. She remained occupied and busy, gathering fuel even for one last meal. A lot of people would have given up to depression and dejection and simply lay down to die. But this woman would continue to cook for her son until she had nothing left to cook. And it was her devotion to that duty that brought her across Elijah's path, and into the pathway of God's blessing.
Try to imagine the heaviness of her heart, as she gathered sticks with the full expectation that she would soon see the grim spectacle of her little boy starving to death. Assuming she had enough strength left, she was probably weeping while she gathered those sticks. Her countenance was somber. Her energy was almost gone.
And yet notice how Elijah approaches her. He asks for water. What a bold thing to ask!
And yet she immediately complied with his request. So when she turns to get the water, he adds a request for some bread. Only then did she tell him of her desperate situation.
Elijah's response at first might seem a bit calloused and presumptuous, but look again and you will realize that everything he told this woman was meant to encourage faith in her. "Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son. For thus saith the LORD God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the LORD sendeth rain upon the earth."
Elijah didn't ask for all of her final measure of flouronly enough to make a very small cakea token that would demonstrate a spark of faith in her. And God graciously moved her heart to obey. "She went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days. And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake by Elijah" (vv. 15-16).
In other words, there was a daily miracle of multiplication, exactly like the miracle Christ performed on a larger scale when He fed the five thousand. Each day the oil and meal were multiplied, so that they never ran dry.
Incidentally, this woman reminds me of another poor widow in Scripture: "[Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, 'Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had'" (Luke 21:1-4). Little is much, when God is in it.
Why did God multiply the flour a handful at a time, rather than giving them a bushel at once? Why not fill the cruse of oil to the brim, rather than merely keeping the last bit from running dry?
You know why: It's the same reason God parked Elijah beside a drying brook, rather than giving him a spring-fed reservoir. This was one more object lesson about the sufficiency of divine grace. James 4:6 says "he giveth more grace." But he gives it when needed, and not ahead of time. That is the very lesson Jesus was teaching in Matthew 6:34, where He says, "Take . . . no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." God gives grace that is sufficient for today's trials today. Tomorrow we can trust Him to provide sufficient grace for that day's troubles, too.
That's what the life of faith is supposed to be like. If you succumb to the temptation to worry, what you are really doing is borrowing tomorrow's troubles without access to tomorrow's grace. Each day's supply is sufficient for that day. And if we learn to live that way, we will discover that God's grace truly is sufficient.