13 August 2007

A Story Full of Surprises

by Phil Johnson

couple of weeks ago, we left Elijah in Zarephath, living incognito in a widow's attic, with the wrath of Ahab on his head and all Israel searching for him at Ahab's command. God was sustaining Elijah through the widow's hospitality, and He was providing their food in very meager amounts, a day at a time by miraculous means: "The bin of flour was not used up, nor did the jar of oil run dry" (1 Kings 17:16).

Then suddenly, a surprising and tragic thing brought unimaginable sorrow to that little household: "It came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick; and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him" (1 Kings 17:17).

Apparently this was a very sudden and very serious illness that fell on the child and quickly proved fatal. He fell sick, and evidently before this woman even had time to summon Elijah's assistance or prayers, the little boy was dead. "There was no breath left in him."

Elijah had probably been living in this widow's home for many weeks or month when this incident happened. It's quite obvious from the text that some time had elapsed since Elijah had sought shelter here, because the phrase "after these things" in verse 17 suggests the passage of time. In the NIV, it's translated "some time later," and that is the true sense of it. An undisclosed amount of time passed, and the fact that the passage of time is mentioned at all suggests it was certainly something more than a day or two—and probably more than just a few weeks.

In other words, this woman and her son had tasted the Lord's goodness for a long enough period of time that she knew it was Jehovah, the God of Elijah, who was sustaining them. She seems to have had a rudimentary kind of faith at this point. Scripture doesn't say whether she was genuinely converted yet or not, but at least on an intellectual level, she knew Elijah's God had graciously spared hers and her son's life.

Remember that when she met Elijah, she had essentially given up her son for dead. She was resigned to the fact that she and the boy were going to die from starvation. She was already emotionally spent and yet still grieving over what she knew lay ahead.

But Elijah's coming had changed all that. The threat of starvation was over. By God's miraculous provision, her supplies had never run out, and Elijah assured her that the drought itself would end before God's faithful, daily provision dried up. She had her son back, as it were, from the dead. If anything, that little boy's life became even more precious to her than ever, because of the knowledge that he had come so close to starvation.

And I think it is safe to speculate that she was rejoicing, and glad for the Lord's goodness to her, and grateful for Elijah's coming to her household. Perhaps she had reached the point where she had even gotten over the emotional trauma of their close brush with starvation. God was now meeting their daily needs, and she was no doubt learning about God and his goodness from this prophet who had sought shelter under her roof. And for once in her life, she had every reason to feel blessed and fortunate and happy.

And then suddenly, inexplicably, the little boy succumbed to a sudden sickness and died in her arms. It was probably (by then) the last thing she expected. That only multiplied her pain and sorrow. From a human standpoint this was an immense tragedy, striking at the worst possible time, just when the woman's fragile faith was desperately in need of strengthening. It must have seemed impossible to make sense of at the moment, and from where the poor woman stood, there was simply no way to see how God might ever wring any good out of such a dark turn of providence.

Her reaction reflects all those emotions in a few words: "She said unto Elijah, What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?"

There's a flash of temper contained in those words that is totally uncharacteristic of everything we know about this woman. When Elijah first met her, she had far more reason to scorn him this way. She was on the very brink of starvation, preparing to make one last morsel for her son before her supplies were totally gone, and Elijah came along asking her for food and water. You'd think that if she had a hot temper, it would have expressed itself there.

Yet at that point, despite the fact that Elijah was virtually asking her to take food from her starving child to give to him, she complied with his request meekly and quietly.

But now, having had her hopes restored for the little boy's life, only to watch him die with this sudden affliction, she could not contain the outpouring of passion that welled up in her.

Her words sound like an accusation against Elijah. "What do I have to do with you, O man of God?" It's an expression of contempt, revulsion, and disdain. She was looking for someone to blame for the calamity that had befallen her son, and Elijah happened to be there. "Have you come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to kill my son?"

There is an almost irrational mixture of faith and unbelief, humility and rebellion in her words. She refers to Elijah as a "man of God," but then she shows contempt for him. She more or less acknowledges a sense of her own sinfulness, but her words to Elijah are laden with blame and devoid of remorse.

It is interesting that she suggested the reason for this calamity was to bring her sin to remembrance. She said that with a tone of resentment. But it is a fact that God sometimes afflicts us to bring certain sins to remembrance so that we may properly and adequately repent of them. Hebrews 12:10-11: He chastens us "for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby."

Suffering and affliction have a way of awakening the conscience like nothing else. But we need to realize that it is God's mercy to afflict us this way. Otherwise our consciences would be seared and we become so hardened by sin we would fall away completely.

This affliction seems to have called to mind a specific sin that this woman had buried in her past. We're given no clue about the nature of that sin, but it loomed large in her heart as she tried to come to grips with why she was being made to suffer so painfully.

And it's interesting that she didn't think the way many people think when they suffer severe misfortune. She didn't insist that she didn't deserve such harsh adversity. She didn't say, "Why me?" And she didn't protest that it was unjust for her to suffer. She seemed to be confessing freely that she was sinful and completely deserving of God's wrath. She was just resentful of Elijah for living in her house so that God would focus his wrath so personally on her.

But it is worth noting that in blaming Elijah, she did not seek to exonerate herself from the guilt and responsibility of her own sin. In that, she's a good model for us all.

We'll leave it there for today and pick up this account at that same point sometime later in the week, Lord willing. But get ready: there are more surprises yet to come.

Phil's signature


candy said...

I continue to find this series very interesting. Thanks for the work.

FX Turk said...

I think the widow was too God-centered. For her to even think about whether she was a sinner at a time when she should have been thinking about what caused her son to died, and whether she is keeping the house clean enough so that nobody else gets sick, is a little egg-headed.

And I resent you bringing it up, Phil. Because I believe in the WCF.

Kay said...

Frank, you should try sarcasm, you know. I bet you'd be really good at it.

FX Turk said...

Libbie --

But then, what of all the duckies and bunnies? Who will care for them?


donsands said...

Exceellent insight.


Excrutiating pain does bring up the depths of our hearts more than anything else.
How could we carry on without God loving us with such a perfect and immense love?

James Scott Bell said...

"It is mostly in times of adversity that we duly consider our moral state; outward afflictions often bring deep searchings of heart." -- Adam Clarke on 1 Kings 17:18.

Yet that sense of moral responsibility is lacking today, even in churches. We rightly point out that not all suffering is a result of personal sin. Yet we're not very good at helping people go through that process of reflection. Are we too afraid of guilt? In the past many churches oversold the guilt thing. Now, has the pendulum swung too far the other way?

Stefan Ewing said...

Would it be reasonable to speculate that this one reason why some of us shy away from telling others the Gospel?

We know that based on the doctrines of grace, we must preach the whole Gospel—which means that before getting to the good stuff (the Good News), we must first make clear the plight that we sinners are in. We may fear a reaction like this: "Are you judging me? How dare you use your God to threaten punishment—I thought he's a God of love!"

As a new Christian, I'm struggling with this. I know that I cannot simply say "God has a plan for your life" or "Jesus can make you a better person" (which have elements of deep truth in them, but not in the way the world understands them). I know I have to preach the whole Gospel, and preach on our sinful condition that God cannot abide, before moving on to the remedy He has provided out of his grace, mercy, and love. But I'm not yet ready for the negative reaction that the first part of the Gospel may provoke: "How dare you call me a sinner! How dare you say that your God of love allows people to sin, and that he will judge me!"

This is made all the more complicated since raising the widow's son (as God is about to do through Elijah) is probably not an option available to us. (Probably not, but with God all things are possible....)

FX Turk said...

sewing -

stay tuned.

Stefan Ewing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stefan Ewing said...


Thank you. I look forward to the response.

When I was a nascent evanjellyfish, sharing the Gospel would have been easy: believe and let believe.

Now that I'm a God-fearing, free-offer five-pointer, I know I can't treat the Gospel call lightly.

(The metamorphosis was not your guys' fault, by the way. It was the sovereign hand of God, but also John Piper's fault for coming to speak at our church. The nerve of that guy!)

I can also see the concern that some non-believers may have, that Christians are just "using" the prospect of eternal perdition to "coerce" folks into believing...which is probably shamefully true in some cases.

I will be grateful for any and all guidance you (Cent), Phil, or Dan can provide on this, because if anyone can tackle it, I know you all can.

Lin said...

I will never read this scripture the same way again. Thanks.

Kristine said...